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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.