"Synthetic marijuana" blamed for teen's death: What is it?

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synthetic marijuana, Max Dobner
Synthetic marijuana
CBS

(CBS)They call it "synthetic marijuana," but experts say it may be more dangerous than the real thing.

How dangerous? A 19-year-old Auroro, Ill. man who got behind the wheel after smoking crashed his car into a house. He died. Max Dobner called his brother in a panic minutes before saying he had smoked a legal marijuana product sold as "potpourri," CBS affiliate WBBM reported in July.

Dobner's friend who also smoked the product, called iAroma, and recently told WBBM it "terrified" him.

"It was the worst experience of my life," the friend told WBBM. "I had seizures, blackouts. I thought I was going to die."

iAroma is one of many synthetic cannabinoid products sold on many web sites under fake-pot product lines called "potpourri." The products mimic marijuana's active ingredient, THC, and binds to similar receptors in the brain. Experts say the industry is unregulated, so it's tough to know what exactly is in the products teens can legally purchase online or in smoke shops and gas stations.

"The contents in the package are never the same - it's a very dangerous game," Dr. Robert Glatter, attending emergency medicine physician at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, told CBS News in an email. He said smoking synthetic marijuana is like "playing Russian Roulette."

Just what's in this stuff? Likely a mixture of herbs, spices, and other chemicals, Dr. Glatter said, adding "It's really an unknown concoction when these products are produced." But what is known is young users are showing up to emergency rooms in record numbers.

Smoking synthetic cannabinoid products can cause hallucinations, nausea, vomiting, paranoid behavior, panic attacks, and elevated blood pressure, and potentially-fatal seizures, Glatter said.

Why aren't "potpourri" products illegal? Customs officials say when law enforcement tests and bans one of these synthetic marijuana products, new ones show up on the market overnight.

"It's a chemical compound, so they keep changing the chemicals trying to stay one step ahead of us," David Murphy, director of Chicago field operations for U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Glatter offered a blunt warning for teens tempted by "potpourri."

"The effects of smoking synthetic marijuana are completely unpredictable - you are gambling with your health and future," he said. "Don't ever smoke these products."

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