Young people across the country are getting a new high from a powerful substance that isn't sold by drug dealers and is perfectly legal -- synthetic marijuana.
Watch "World News with Diane Sawyer" for more on this story tonight on ABC.
Synthetic marijuana is a mixture of common herbs sprayed with synthetic chemicals that mimic the effects of marijuana. A disclaimer on the packages stating that it is not for human consumption allows the substance to remain on store shelves.
Sold as incense in head shops, tobacco stores and even in gas stations, its popularity has soared. In 12 states, its sale has been banned by legislatures, including Kansas, Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, Missouri, Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas, Oregon, Illinois, Michigan, and Kentucky. It's also banned in some cities in Texas.
Still, it is legal in the remaining 37 states. In the past year, there have been over 500 cases of adverse reactions to synthetic marijuana across the country, according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers. The number has risen exponentially, with the organization only citing 6 reported incidents from the year before.
Twenty-year-old Minnesotan Paul Hausladen says his life began to fall apart after he became addicted to the drug.
"It's the type of drug that once you use it once, you have no control over how you are going to use," said Hausladen. "I could walk into a tobacco store and just buy whatever I wanted, however much I wanted."
For young people like Hausladen, smoking Spice often sends people to the emergency room. In his Minneapolis suburb, emergency incidents due to the drug have risen exponentially in the past 18 months.
But the message of danger is not getting out. Instead, synthetic marijuana is an Internet sensation. Catchy music, sexy poses and smoke-filled pictures with bongs and rolled joints appeal to a youth culture that sees a high that is easily to get. One YouTube video even shows a girls smoking the drug while wearing a gas mask. In other videos, kids brag about finding a legal high.
"Legal weed. Here it is," says one young man in a YouTube video. "If you want to go with something legal and don't want to get busted, K2."
But the danger is very real. When ABC News sent the type of Spice sold in Minnesota to a Pennsylvania laboratory, reports showed the drug contained chemicals that the Drug Enforcement Administration believes could be five times more powerful than marijuana. Preliminary tests by the DEA found that synthetic marijuana has dangerous long-term and short-term side effects.
"You're basically playing Russian roulette with these chemicals," said Gary Boggs, a special agent with the DEA. "Hallucination, increased heart rate, increased blood pressure... these chemicals appear to bind to certain parts of the brain, so the potential for long-term effects are very deadly."
None of the dangerous chemicals appears on the package label.