In the past few months, at least 15 young adults have sought emergency medical treatment at DCH Regional Medical Center with the same symptoms: a racing heart and paranoia.
It sounds like a bad reaction to an illegal drug, but it's not. It's a bad reaction to a legal substance that can be purchased in gas stations and tobacco stores across Alabama.
Marketed as "incense," synthetic marijuana
, sometimes called "fake pot," is a herbal product that has been treated with chemicals that mimic the effects of marijuana when smoked. Similar chemicals were made illegal in Alabama last year, but chemists can alter the compounds to remain within the constraints, but perhaps not the spirit, of the law.
Users report that the effects are similar, if not more intense, than the real thing. Some gas station and tobacco store owners in Tuscaloosa who declined to be interviewed on the record about synthetic marijuana said last week that the product is a top seller.
DCH spokesman Brad Fisher said that most of the people who have sought treatment are in their early 20s and are usually discharged within two or three hours, according to emergency room doctors.
Often called "Spice" or "K2," synthetic marijuana is cheaper, easier to obtain and doesn't show up on drug tests. There's no age limit to purchase the product, which is often labeled "not for human consumption."
Police say that it's difficult to enforce the ban on the chemicals that were outlawed last year because they have no way to (field) test the product.
The Regional Poison Control Center at Children's Hospital of Alabama reports receiving 67 calls from people who have smoked synthetic pot since October 2010, according to the Alabama Department of Public Health. Three were children between 6 and 12, 15 were teenagers and 22 were in their 20s. Of those, 76 percent were male. At least 56 were treated for toxic exposure in hospital emergency rooms. According to the American Association of Poison Control Centers, more than 6,700 calls were made to poison control centers nationally in 2010 and in the first seven months of 2011 about synthetic marijuana.