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Synthetic Marijuana: How Dangerous Is It?

MIAMI (CBS4) - On the shelves of several convenience stores in South Florida, CBS 4 News found a drug that law enforcement, legislators and drug experts describe as "dangerous" and even deadly, and despite efforts to ban the drug, the makers are able to keep it legal and for sale.

Wrapped in a colorful package with a catchy name, synthetic marijuana -- also known as Spice or K2 -- is marketed as incense, is not detectable in most drug tests and is labeled "not for human consumption." But despite federal and state efforts to ban the chemicals used to make the drug, experts say it's use appears to be on the rise.

And experts also say that the makers of the drug are staying one step ahead of law enforcement to keep the drug legal by changing the chemical makeup of the drug to use compounds that have not yet been banned.

"They're miles ahead. They're not just steps anymore," Chip Walls told CBS4's Carey Codd. Walls is a forensic toxicologist at the University of Miami.

He explained that there's a simple reason Spice is still on store shelves.

"Problem is," Walls explained, "they're changing (ingredients) as fast as the government is putting them on a controlled substance list."

And the makers of the drug are apparently making money.

"I sell like probably like 100 a day… easy," said an unidentified South Florida gas station clerk.

One teen, who did not want to be identified, told us she smoked Spice.

"One of the times that I did it I felt like I was gonna have a heart attack," the teen said. "My heart was beating really fast. I was trying to catch my breath."

The teen told CBS 4 News that she didn't realize how dangerous the drug is.

"If something's legal, the law says it's ok. So why not?" the teen said.

Medical professionals and drug investigators say Spice can cause devastating side effects.

"It produces extremely rapid increases in heart rate and blood pressure," Walls explained. "There have been reports of stroke, seizure activity."

Just last month, published reports indicated that actress Demi Moore used fake pot.

The people who called 9-1-1 are quoted as saying, "She smoked something. It's not marijuana, but it's similar to... it's similar to incense and she seems to be having convulsions of some sort."

Over the past few years, federal and state investigators have taken notice of the dangers of synthetic marijuana.

Last year, the DEA temporarily banned several of the chemicals used to make synthetic marijuana.

Also last year, the Florida legislature made it a crime to possess some of the ingredients.

However, experts say the makers of this drug are crafty in getting around the law. Not only do they change the ingredients, experts say, but they come with warning labels saying it's not for human consumption and doesn't contain the banned substances.

Florida lawmakers are taking aim at the drug again this year.

Representative Clay Ingram (R-Pensacola) is sponsoring legislation that would place more of the chemical compounds used to make Spice on the restricted substances list. Under the new law, possession, manufacture or sale of the drug would be a third degree felony in Florida.

Ingram said the bill is a priority of Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, who also pushed for legislation last year to ban the drug known as bath salts.

"If this keeps young people from hurting themselves, if this saves some lives, that would be my goal," Ingram said.

That's the goal for many of the people who have encountered Spice.

Walls tested two bags of that Spice CBS 4 bought at a Miami Beach grocery store.

"This is a very dangerous product. It's totally uncontrolled. We don't know what they're putting in, in what concentrations," Walls told Codd.

Walls found chemicals in Spice that are more powerful than regular pot. But none of what he found is illegal.

"These chemicals are dangerous. They're leading to hospitalizations. There have been deaths. People have committed suicide after the use of this drug," Walls said.

Another concern for parents -- Spice is easily available online. One website even brags that Spice is becoming increasingly popular at teen parties.

Here's more evidence of the drug's dangers, according to experts -- the number of people becoming sick on synthetic marijuana has nearly doubled in Florida since 2010 and more than doubled nationally in that time, according to the Florida Poison Control Center.

Dr. Nabil El Sanadi is the Chief of Emergency Medicine for Broward Health. He says parents need to pay close attention to the dangers of synthetic marijuana.

"This is like the perfect hook for young kids," said Dr. El Sanadi. "For the unsuspecting teenagers and young adults that use these things that don't even know what's in it, they could have long-lasting, lifelong bad effects."

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