It’s a mysterious, constantly-changing drug that has cops trying to keep up with dealers. And the drug can also be a mystery for ER docs trying to save users' lives.
It’s called synthetic marijuana or fake pot because the drug can interact with the brain similarly to that drug. But synthetic marijuana is unpredictable and much more dangerous than the drug it’s supposed to mimic.
Dr. Nabil El Sanadi, Chief Medical Officer of Emergency Medicine at Broward Health said, "You are playing with Russian Roulette when you are buying these things.”
Synthetic marijuana was once sold openly in convenience stores and gas stations Sales have gone underground since it was banned in Florida, but police say it is still holding its own on the black market.
Tuesday, in the Tampa area, cops showed some of the nearly 150 pounds of the stuff seized from an alleged ring of fake pot dealers getting their chemicals, police say, from China.
The chemicals come by land, sea or air, such as at Chicago’s O’Hare airport, where millions of pieces of foreign mail are x-rayed by agents from U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Those packages containing powders are opened and tested.
"This one is AKB48," said Neele Shepherd, a chemist from Customs and Border Protection, showing an NBC crew a substance she detected after just an hour of searching at O’Hare.
AKB-48 is one of countless formulations of chemicals that, once in this country, are dissolved in acetone, sprayed onto something smokeable like plants then sold under names like K-2 or Spice. The branding, cheap prices and evasion of positive drugs tests for real pot and other drugs make it attractive to teens--even though they have no idea what chemical they’re inhaling.
That’s because every time one formula of the drug is outlawed, the makers in Asia go back to work literally manipulating the molecules,
"They have chemists working for them. They design a new chemical. And all of a sudden, it's a new substance that's not controlled.” said Shepherd.
"It's a cat and mouse game. They are constantly manipulating the formulas," said Brian Bell with Customs and Border Protection.
It’s also a challenge for ER docs like El Sanadi. He estimated his hospital sees patients suffering with synthetic marijuana side effects at least every other day.
"We get worried sometimes in the emergency department that we may be missing some of those cases of synthetic marijuana because our laboratory doesn’t test for every single variant," said El Sanadi.
The mystery concoctions can be addictive and deadly.
Something Kathleen Gaspar’s family knows all too well. Gaspar bought fake pot to relieve pain from a broken hip in 2011. That was when it was legally sold over the counter;
"She was my best friend for all my life,” said Shannon Sheehan, Gaspar’s daughter.
“…because of the appearance it was legal, and it was safe, and it was okay,” said Sheehan. Her mom only smoked it once.
Sheehan found her body. She had died from a massive head injury and her home looked like it had been ripped apart.
“So many things were broken and tore up and just in disarray,” said Sheehan.
“It’s 50 to 100 percent times stronger than ordinary marijuana,” said Charles Bufalino, head of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement drug unit. He says the producers have plenty of incentive to keep changing new synthetic marijuana formulas.
“They can produce this at an initial investment of $5000—they can earn $100,000. it’s very lucrative.”
In Florida, new laws and enforcement have helped stem the tide of open sales but new markets for synthetic pot are springing up on line promising legal variants which you can even buy with a credit card. Sheehan says parents should be especially alarmed that something so dangerous may now be just a mouse click away.
“Just don't underestimate it,” said Sheehan.
Bufalino says the physical and mental effects can be for more stunning than from real pot --- delirium, violent outbursts incredible feats of physical strength as an overheated body and rapidly racing heart make users largely uncontrollable and, it can kill you.