As early as August of this year, fake marijuana makers may have to rethink their strategy. California lawmakers are trying to make it illegal to change synthetic drug formulas in order to stay above the law.
At the moment, five chemicals are federally banned. However, fake pot producers have stayed a step ahead of the law by tweaking the formulas of more commonly known substances called Spice and K2, police say. More recently, the packaging has included colorful cartoon characters, labeled things like Scooby Snax and Crazy Monkey.
"We're constantly fighting a battle trying to keep up," said Sergeant Tod Rehner of Paso Robles Police Department.
Sgt. Rehner led an undercover operation in early April to see which smoke shops were selling illegal spice, and then "we'll seize all that property from all the businesses and talk to the District Attorney and see if they want to prosecute."
Synthetic marijuana looks like traditional marijuana; however, doctors say it's nothing like it.
"There's no marijuana in it. It's all just synthetic chemicals that are solvents, products used in fertilizer. This is a lot more dangerous than just pot," Dr. Ken Starr, of Addiction Medicine in Los Osos, said.
A recent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine says synthetic marijuana is more potent, binding to cannabis receptors in the brain 1,000 stronger compared to traditional marijuana. Synthetic marijuana is the second most common drug abused by high school seniors, after marijuana, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Dr. Starr says he's seen more and more patients coming into the emergency room with hallucinations, psychosis, rapid heart rate, even kidney failure and stroke. Some bigger ERs in the county are seeing a patient a day from synthetic marijuana, according to Dr. Starr..
"The worst I've seen so far is the withdrawal state, as if you were withdrawing from a painkiller or heroin," Dr. Starr said.
A Paso Robles man, who asked we not identify him, passed out in his driveway in March after smoking too much Scooby Snax.
"I was getting it to get high off. I didn't care about the consequences," he said, explaining he was using fake pot to ease the pain from a car accident he'd been in previously.
His father, who also asked not to be identified, started noticing a difference.
"When he started on this, he got off his meds, he wasn't eating right, and then you couldn't control him anymore. He was getting a little violent," said the dad, who talked to KSBY in order to warn other parents who may mistake synthetic drug packets for candy.
"It's cartoon characters. It's flashy packaging. Definitely caters to a certain clientele and that's juveniles," Sgt. Rehner said.
Paso Robles police were able to buy Scooby Snax and other products they call Spice from three out of the four smoke shops in the city. Undercover officers say the packets were under the counters and each bag retailed for $15.
After each purchase, officers tested them with presumptive test kits. If they turned yellow or brown, it meant the packets contained illegal chemicals, according to police.
Synthetic drugs from all three packets turned the desired color, indicating banned substances. However, when Paso Robles police sent the evidence to the Department of Justice labs to be sure, all of the chemicals came back as "unknown," Sgt. Rehner said.
"We don't know what it is. The difficult part from a law enforcement perspective is that if they change the formula it's something we've never seen before, and from that point alone it becomes legal," Sgt. Rehner said, frustrated they were not able to seize the product from smoke shops. "We're constantly fighting a battle trying to keep up."
On Tuesday, the State Senate had a hearing to discuss whether tweaks to chemicals should be outlawed. A committee voted unanimously to advance the bill to the next committee, according to Ross Warren, who works for Senator Cathleen Galgiani (D-Stockton).
KSBY attempted to contact synthetic marijuana makers through their websites; however, they did not reply.
Warren says the bill will likely go to the Senate floor for a vote in May and then the Assembly in August.
In that same bill, state lawmakers are also proposing making it illegal to possess synthetic drugs. As of now, it's only illegal to sell them.