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Synthetic marijuana puts old threat in new form; DEA expresses urgency over a growing problem

Methamphetamine abuse is an old problem, but synthetic marijuana represents a more recent player on the drug scene.

Growing concern over synthetic marijuana prompted the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration last spring to exercise its emergency authority to temporarily classify five chemicals used in "fake pot" products as Schedule 1 substances.

The agency was targeting smokable herbal products marketed as "Spice," "K2" and other names that look like marijuana and are coated with chemicals that are said to mimic the effect of THC, the active ingredient in marijuana.

Schedule 1 is the most restrictive of five categories that the DEA uses for controlled substances, and includes LSD and heroin. It indicates drugs that are considered to have a high potential for abuse and no currently accepted medical use.

The temporary classification will last 12 months, with the possibility of a six-month extension, while studies are done on whether the chemicals should be permanently controlled.

Many states have moved to regulate the products, but authorities say manufacturers can get around restrictions by using different but related compounds.

What has happened with synthetic marijuana is similar to the stories of other drugs. Opiates derived from opium eventually led to the production of synthetic opioids. Likewise, chemists eventually figured out how to make such designer amphetamines as Ecstasy.

"Synthetic marijuana is new, but the process you're seeing is not new. People figure out how to create chemicals similar to natural substances," said Dr. Richard D. Blondell, professor and vice chairman for addiction medicine in the University at Buffalo's Department of Family Medicine.

One indication of the increasing popularity of the products is the increasing number of calls to poison-control centers.

There were 2,906 calls to poison-control centers nationally in 2010 about exposures to synthetic marijuana, compared with 6,955 calls in 2011, according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers.

Also, the latest results released in December of an annual survey conducted by the National Institute on Drug Abuse for the first time noted synthetic marijuana use. It reported that nearly 1 in 9, or about 11 percent, of high school seniors reported having used these substances in the last year.

Reports to poison-control centers include complaints of agitation, anxiety, nausea, racing heartbeat, tremor and hallucinations, according to the Office of National Drug Control Policy. Moreover, a report last year in the journal Pediatrics reviewed the cases of three 16-year-old boys in Texas who suffered heart attacks shortly after smoking the products.

Nevertheless, little is known about the long-term effects of synthetic marijuana because studies have not been done.

"Bath salts and synthetic marijuana are creeping into communities throughout Western New York, so I applaud law enforcement for taking decisive action in this case," Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., said in a statement. "This only highlights the need for an immediate and national ban on these substances, so that we can get them off of store shelves for good. I'm going to keep fighting to get that law passed as soon as possible."