Nov. 24, 2010— -- The Drug Enforcement Administration said today that it will 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 go into effect sometime in the next 30 days, the DEA said today in a news release. The ban will be in place for at least a year as the federal government considers whether to control the substances permanently.
"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 the 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 packages stating that it is not for human consumption had allowed the substance to remain on store shelves, until now.
Sold as incense in head shops, tobacco stores and even in gas stations, its popularity has soared. In at The sale of synthetic marijuana had already been banned by legislatures in at least 12 states, including Kansas, Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, Missouri, Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas, Oregon, Illinois, Michigan and Kentucky. It's also banned in some cities in Texas.
There have been more than 500 cases of adverse reactions to synthetic marijuana across the country in the past year, according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers. The number has risen exponentially, with the organization only citing six reported incidents from the year before.
Paul Hausladen, 20, said 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," Hausladen said. "I could walk into a tobacco store and just buy whatever I wanted, however much I wanted."
For young people such as Hausladen, smoking Spice often sends people to the emergency room. In his Minneapolis suburb, emergency incidents resulting from the drug have risen exponentially in the past 18 months.
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 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," 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.
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.
Parents are frightened by an easily accessible drug whose name many have never even heard.
Stacy Huberty of Hastings, Minn., 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. She 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 mom spoke to a police officer who was in the hospital's hallway. Hoping to hold someone accountable for giving her teenager this harmful substance to smoke, Huberty asked the officer what he knew about synthetic marijuana. The officer's response "floored" her.
"There is nothing that can be done," she said he told her, "it's not an illegal substance to have" and "no charges could be filed."
Her painfully shy son remembered the moment that nearly cost him his life, and the simple question from his cousin 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.'"
Before today's DEA 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," Det. Dan Schoen of the Cottage Grove Police Department told ABC News earlier this month. "They are not going to stop selling it until they absolutely are forced to."
Hausladen, the former user, 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.