The Rise of Fake Pot

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by Eliza Gray,

from TIME Magazine,

Sold openly in stores, popular with kids and unpredictably dangerous, synthetic pot is just around the corner.

The most complicated drug problem in the world right now isn’t meth or cocaine or or heroin. It is synthetic drugs, also known as legal highs or designer drugs. Five years ago, these substances were virtually unheard of. Now, say drug monitors and law-enforcement officials, they are spreading to eager buyers everywhere at an unprecedented speed.

With street names like K2 and Spice, these substances are widely available, sold openly in stores with little fear of prosecution. Faced with their rapid proliferation, legislators are looking for ways to respond.

Mixed by chemists in labs, mostly in Asia, synthetics are chemical compounds designed to mimic the effects of naturally occurring drugs like marijuana and cocaine while staying just inside the law. Because the newest compounds don’t yet appear on state and federal lists of illegal drugs, the sellers can market them as legal. As soon as authorities add a compound to the prohibited list, the chemists tweak the formula—ever so slightly—to make a new substance that purports to be legal.

But the real boom is in chemicals meant to stand in for pot. Herbal incense and Potpourri are among the labels found on synthetic cannabinoids, which act on the same receptor in the brain as THC, the psychoactive ingredient in cannabis–that is, marijuana. They are typically sprayed on an inert, leafy plant (often damiana or marshmallow leaf) that users buy and smoke.

Cannabinoids are now the most popular kind of synthetic, and the increasing legalization of pot may further burnish the myth that these chemicals are mostly harmless. But their effects, which are only beginning to be understood, can be unpredictable and dangerous. Emergency rooms and poison-control centers have reported synthetic-related kidney failure, seizures and psychoses.

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