This week, President Obama signed a law banning synthetic marijuana and other synthetic drugs. Dozens of states and local governments have already tried to outlaw fake marijuana, which has been blamed for hundreds of emergency room visits and a handful of fatalities.
But the bans have proved largely ineffective, and there are fears that the federal law won't be any different.
Synthetic marijuana looks a bit like dried grass clippings. It's readily available on the Internet and in convenience stores and smoke shops, where it's sold as herbal incense or potpourri.
A Stand-In For Marijuana
At roughly $20 a gram, it's unlikely that many buyers are using synthetic marijuana to freshen up the powder room. Most are smoking it as a substitute for real marijuana.
That's what Aaron Stinson was doing last September.
"This is an actual packet that I found in his belongings, in his bedroom," says his mother, Deirdre Canaday, as she holds up a small, shiny package.
The product is called Relaxinol — which, the label promises, can relieve "unwanted state of mind." Canaday found the packet in Stinson's apartment last year, shortly after he died in his sleep at a friend's house in upstate New York.
"He had smoked a spice potpourri product called Mr. Nice Guy Relaxinol," Canaday says. "And he went to sleep. And in the morning, about 9:30 a.m., his two friends woke up. But Aaron — they found him totally unresponsive, not breathing, no pulse."
Canaday admits her son had a history of using drugs, specifically marijuana. But she says Stinson, who was 26, was getting his act together. He had a good job as a home health care aide. Canaday thinks Stinson was using synthetic marijuana that night for the same reason many people do: He was worried about passing a drug test for his job, and he knew that synthetic marijuana was not likely to show up.
"I think that my son, the only thing he did wrong was to be naive," Canaday says, "to believe this stuff that's packaged was all natural and safe, and a good alternative to something that was illegal — because it's not."
The pathologist determined the cause of Stinson's death to be "acute intoxication due to the combined effects of ethanol (from alcohol consumption) and Relaxinol." No charges were ever filed; the company that makes Relaxinol did not respond to requests for an interview.
Drugs Bring Side Effects And Uncertainty
There are no clinical studies about the health effects of synthetic marijuana. But anecdotally, health care providers report a long list of nasty side effects, from agitation and paranoia to intense hallucinations and psychosis.
Christine Stork, the clinical director of the Upstate New York Poison Control Center, says that she's seen a steady stream of synthetic marijuana users turn up in emergency rooms over the past few years.
"They're expecting a marijuana experience and pretty soon, they realize they're not getting their usual experience," she says. "They can be quite agitated. They can be quite paranoid. They require drugs to sedate them and may have seizures, which are pretty severe."
Stork says synthetic marijuana can be 20 times as potent as real marijuana. But it's hard to predict the strength of any particular brand or packet — in part because it's remarkably easy for anyone to make and package synthetic marijuana without any oversight or regulation.
Video Tutorials In Drug Making
In a video posted on YouTube, an unidentified man shows how it's done, using damiana, a Mexican shrub, as the base. All you need is some legal plant material and some chemical powders that can be easily ordered from overseas labs.
"Anybody with a working knowledge of chemistry, or that can follow a simple set of directions, can obtain and mix these substances and create these compounds," says James Burns, a special agent with the Drug Enforcement Administration in upstate New York.
Most states have already moved to ban some synthetic cannabinoids — the chemical compounds that are the key ingredient in synthetic marijuana. But Burns says it's not that simple.
"You have people that are very good with chemistry, that continue to manipulate the molecular structure of these substances," he says. "So that they are creating analogues, or substances that are similar to those that have been banned."
The result is a big game of cat and mouse. The government outlaws a certain compound or family of compounds. But then producers tweak the chemical formula of their products to skirt the law.
A $5 Billion Market
Despite a slew of federal, state and local bans, sales in the synthetic drug industry seem to be growing — to roughly $5 billion a year, according to Rick Broider, president of the North American Herbal Incense Trade Association.
"You can't stop the market," he says. "You know, there's no piece of legislation that's going to stop market demand."
Broider runs a company called Liberty Herbal Incense in New Hampshire, which he says recently changed its chemical formulas to keep its products legal. He insists his industry's products are not for human consumption, though he concedes that some people may be misusing the product by smoking it.
"We're aware that there are a number of people who do choose to misuse our products for their euphoric effect. We do not support that at all," Broider says. "If you're going to misuse a product, you're basically incurring a large risk to yourself. But our question is, don't Americans have the right to assume their own personal risk?"
Would Broider allow his children to smoke herbal incense or synthetic marijuana products?
"You know, if my children are under 18 years old, I would not allow them to do anything that I wouldn't deem appropriate to be doing under 18 years old," he says. "When they're over 18 years old, I would see it no differently than alcohol or tobacco, which are two products that have been proven to be addictive and have have proven to have negative health consequences."
That argument doesn't convince Canaday, who blames her son's death on a different brand of synthetic marijuana.
"I would say they're cowards," she says of manufacturers like Broider. "I would say they're absolute cowards. And worse than the drug dealers on the street that sell illicit drugs."
A New Federal Law
So far, law enforcement officials have been mostly stymied in their efforts to treat synthetic drugs makers like conventional drug dealers. This week, President Obama signed the Synthetic Drug Abuse Prevention Act of 2012. It will mean tougher criminal penalties for selling some first-generation synthetic cannabinoids and many newer ones as well.
The new law should help, says Burns of the DEA.
"If we can make the bad guys react to what we're doing instead of us reacting to what the bad guys are doing, then I think that'll help us get a better handle on this issue," he says.
But others worry that the new federal law is already obsolete.
"It'll help in some regards, that these things need to be listed and controlled. And there'll be no more discussion about, 'I didn't know,' " says Anthony Tambasco, a forensic scientist in Mansfield, Ohio. "But you'll have, again, new compounds coming through the door that we'll have to deal with.
As soon as Ohio outlawed a number of synthetic cannabinoids last year, Tambasco says, he started to see new compounds in local stores. And he expects drug makers will react just as quickly to the new federal ban.
"They already are. They're already out in front of it. They're already on their next batch," he says.
When we spoke last week, Tambaso said there were already three synthetic cannabinoid samples he'd never seen before waiting for him in the lab.