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What is Synthetic Marijuana?

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Wikimedia Commons

  Two businesses in Morgantown are accused of illegally selling a drug known as synthetic marijuana. Law enforcement leaders are working with United States Attorney William J. Ihlenfeld, II, to investigate but so far no charges have been filed.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and other sources, synthetic marijuana refers to herbs and plant materials that are sprayed with chemicals designed to mimic the effects of marijuana. It’s often marketed as incense and labeled “not for human consumption.” While not exclusively generated out of Asia, law officials indicate China may be a major source of production.

In July of 2012, the Synthetic Drug Abuse Prevention Act was signed into Federal law which banned synthetic compounds commonly found in the drug, placing them under Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act.

Schedule I drugs are considered the most dangerous of all drugs, which have no currently accepted medical uses and a high potential for abuse. Other schedule I drugs include heroine, LSD, and marijuana.

Since 2012, and since West Virginia passed a law banning the sale of the product around the same time, law officials say, there seems to have been a decrease in the drug’s prevalence.

But earlier this week a Chicago NBC affiliate reported that the O’Hare airport sees more smuggled synthetic marijuana than cocaine or ecstasy. 

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Credit U.S. Attorney's Office
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U.S. Attorney's Office

“It is unpredictably dangerous,” says U.S. Attorney William J. Ihlenfeld. He confirms that the designer drug is a growing concern elsewhere in the country, which makes him uneasy about it becoming a greater concern under his jurisdiction. 

Symptoms can include:

  • rapid heart rate
  • kidney failure
  • seizures
  • vomiting
  • agitation
  • confusion
  • hallucinations

Ihlenfeld says many deaths throughout the country have been tied directly to use of the synthetic cannabanoids. He explains, because the drugs are sold in shops, often falsely advertising that they contain “natural” psychoactive materials, users get a false sense of security. Ihlenfeld says as an illegal material, production of the drug is naturally highly unregulated. He say the drug is fabricated in ways that make predicting potency all but impossible.
Morgantown police report that the unpredictable drug presents challenges for medical professionals. Dr. Rolly Sullivan from West Virginia University’s Health Sciences Center says emergency room doctors have an especially difficult time since there is no standardized way of testing for the drug.

Meanwhile the Morgantown businesses known as Mid-Nite Adult and the X-Hale Hookah Lounge are accused of selling significant amounts of the synthetic cannabinoids commonly packaged and labeled as, “Spice‚” “Herbal Incense‚” or “K2.” Law officials suspect that in just under two years the businesses collectively generated over $4 million in sales.

Officials say undercover controlled purchases were made from both businesses and then the substances were submitted to the Drug Enforcement Agency’s Mid-Atlantic Laboratory for analysis. Ihlenfeld says his team is waiting for more lab results before they proceed with any criminal charges, and the investigation is ongoing.


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