Mom's Crusade to Ban Synthetic Marijuana Can End

DEA will ban chemicals used to produce synthetic marijuana, making it illegal

Dec. 2, 2010 -- Stacy Huberty of Hastings, Minn., had been on a crusade to get synthetic marijuana off store shelves in her state. She had worked with a group of concerned parents and lawmakers, including State Sen. Kate Sieben, in this effort. Huberty learned of synthetic marijuana in a most disturbing way. She received a call from her daughter that her son, Sam, 14, had passed out on the bathroom floor after trying it once. Huberty rushed to the hospital.

"It was extremely scary," Huberty recalled. "I reached over to touch his arm, and he was just cold and clammy. I didn't know if he was going to die."

After spending five hours with Sam in the emergency room, the distraught mother spoke to a police officer who stood in the hospital's hallway. Hoping to find someone to hold accountable for giving her teenager this harmful substance to smoke, Huberty asked the officer what he knew about synthetic marijuana. His response "floored" her.

"There is nothing that can be done," she said he told her. "It's not an illegal substance" and "no charges could be filed."

Her painfully shy son recalled the moment that nearly cost him his life, and his cousin's simple question that sparked his decision.

"He asked me if I wanted to get high, and I said yeah," Sam Huberty said. "He was like, 'It's kind of like pot. It's legal.'"

In Sam's Minneapolis suburb, emergency incidents resulting from the use of synthetic marijuana have increased exponentially in the past 18 months.

Last week, the Drug Enforcement Administration said it would ban five chemicals used to produce synthetic marijuana, making the product illegal to sell or possess in the United States.

The move comes as a wave of young people across the country has embraced synthetic marijuana, which was sold legally in many places, as a way to get high.

The temporary ban on chemicals in fake pot will take effect in the next 30 days, the DEA said today in a news release. The ban will be in place for at least a year while the federal government considers whether to place permanent controls on the substances.

'Fake Pot' is not Safe

"Makers of these harmful products mislead their customers into thinking that 'fake pot' is a harmless alternative to illegal drugs, but that is not the case," DEA Acting Administrator Michele Leonhart wrote in a statement.

"Today's action will call further attention to the risks of ingesting unknown compounds and will hopefully take away any incentive to try these products."

Also known as K2 or "spice," synthetic marijuana is a mixture of common herbs sprayed with synthetic chemicals that mimic the effects of marijuana. A disclaimer on the package stating that it is not for human consumption had allowed the substance to remain on store shelves.

Sold in head shops as incense, tobacco stores and even in gas stations, its popularity has soared. Before the DEA ban, the sale of synthetic marijuana had already been prohibited in at least 12 states, including Kansas, Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, Missouri, Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas, Oregon, Illinois, Michigan and Kentucky, as well as some cities in Texas.

More than 500 cases of adverse reactions to synthetic marijuana had been reported across the country in the past year, according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers, up from six reported incidents from the previous year.

Synthetic Marijuana Popularized on YouTube

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 easy to get. One YouTube video shows girls smoking the drug while wearing gas masks. In other videos, kids brag about finding a legal high.

"Legal weed. Here it is," one young man said in a YouTube video. "If you want to go with something legal and don't want to get busted, K2."

But the danger is real. When ABC News sent the kind of "spice" sold in Minnesota to a Pennsylvania laboratory, reports showed the drug contained chemicals that the DEA believes could be five times more powerful than marijuana.

'Russian Roulette' With Dangerous Chemicals

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 appear on the package label.

Before the DEA's recent decision, police departments throughout Minneapolis were powerless to fight the drug, although they said they were disturbed to see so many young people ending up in the hospital, often suffering from seizures.

"It is very frustrating to us, because there is nothing we can do about it," Detective Dan Schoen of the Cottage Grove Police Department told ABC News last month. "They are not going to stop selling it until they absolutely are forced to."

Paul Hausladen, 20, said his life began to fall apart after he became addicted to the easily accessible drug. "It's the type of drug that once you use it once, you have no control over how you are going to use," Hausladen said. "I could walk into a tobacco store and just buy whatever I wanted, however much I wanted."

A former user, Hausladen has a ready warning for parents. "The people that are buying it have no idea how strong it is," he said. "I don't want anyone to go down the same path I went down."

ABC's Bradley Blackburn contributed to this report.