Although synthetic marijuana has been federally banned since July 9, some convenience stores and gas stations throughout Baltimore and Baltimore County continue to sell the once legal version of marijuana.
The product has long been an alternative to the natural marijuana that is detected in standard drug tests and is sold under many different names, including “Spice,” “K2,” and “Scooby Doo.”
DEA agents are currently investigating locations where the product has allegedly been sold in Baltimore.
“We have heard of several gas and convenience that are allegedly selling K2 and Spice,” said Special Agent Edward A. Marcinko, Jr. “We believe that they really haven't gotten the word that there is a ban and we hope that's the case.”
While authorities are willing to give some merchants the benefit of the doubt, Marcinko said “the DEA is watching these stores.”
“We do take these ‘Mom and Pop’ and convenience stores selling this product very seriously.”
“Don't be surprised if we come knocking on your door one day,” said Marcinko.
DEA agents have already recovered massive amounts of synthetic cannabinoids and cathinones in “Operation Log Jam,” which took down manufacturers and retailers of the so-called designer drugs in more than 109 cities nationwide.
According to an Aug. 30 press release on the first national movement to stop the making and selling of the designer drugs, DEA agents confiscated 4.8 million bags of synthetic cannabinoids and 167,000 packets of synthetic cathinones.
They also confiscated $36 million in cash, materials to make $13.6 million more in synthetic marijuana products and supplies for 392,000 more packets of synthetic cathinones.
President Obama signed the bill outlawing synthetic marijuana and any imitation products last month as part of the Food and Drug Administration Safety and Innovation Act (S. 3187).
The act also outlaws synthetic cathinones, or “bath salts,” a synthetic form of cocaine and ecstasy. Both drugs are very different but have side effects that include nausea, panic attacks, hallucinations, rapid heartbeats that can lead to heart attack, and stroke.
Packages for synthetic cannabinoids and cathinones say the product is “not for human consumption,” and the substances are often sold as “plant food,” or as a household chemical or cleaning product.
Community leaders say they are outraged that the substance is still available and marketed and note that young people are using the drug at alarming rates.
"They're making the packaging attractive to young people in flavors like mango, grape and blueberry,” said Rev. C.D. Witherspoon, president of the Baltimore Chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).
Witherspoon and a partner conducted an impromptu check to see where the product is available in Baltimore.
"In the course of our community-based investigation we saw store owners that were ducking underneath counters and going into cigar boxes and things of that nature,” Witherspoon told the AFRO. “They were attempting to be discreet, which says to us that they are fully aware that what they are doing is selling an illegal product.”
According to information released by the White House, synthetic marijuana first appeared in the United States in November 2008 when it was studied in Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) forensic laboratories.
"Initially these agents were developed as research tools by individuals who were trying to understand the role of cannabinoid receptors in the human body,” said Dr. Bruce Anderson, director of operations for the Maryland Poison Center since 1995.
Anderson, who is also a professor at the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy, said there are over 500 different versions of synthetic marijuana, all of which are closely related, but altered slightly in chemical structure.
Five of the chemicals found in synthetic marijuana were banned in March 2011, but the new legislation adds 26 more substances to that list and also addresses the problem of scientists slightly altering drugs just enough to be legal while still retaining their psychoactive properties.
The Federal Analog Act of 1986 bans products that attempt to mimic illegal substances.
According to Anderson, imitation chemicals pose a great danger to the teens and young adults ingesting the products, as each chemical alteration causes effects that have not been studied.
“If you change the chemical structure even a little bit it can have profound impacts on how people respond,” said Anderson.
“The chemists are trying to stay ahead of the people making the laws. The people who are in the business of selling these things are modifying the chemical structures in order to avoid the legislation that is banning certain chemical entities.”
Since being introduced, the number of emergency calls and situations that have occurred as a result of bath salts and synthetic marijuana use has increased annually.
According to the American Association of Poison Control Centers (AAPCC), in 2010 there were 2,906 calls for help after human ingestion of synthetic marijuana. That number soared to 6,959 last year. In the first six months of 2012, there have been 3,372 emergency calls nationwide.
“We don't hear about these cases unless someone calls and tells us about them,” said Anderson. “What we are reporting is probably a dramatic under-representation of what is actually happening in the community.”
Maryland had a total of 159 calls of adverse reaction to synthetic cannabinoids from Jan. 1 to Aug. 15, a call volume Anderson said his colleagues in Florida and Louisiana experience in one month.