HASTINGS, Minn. Nov. 22, 2010— -- 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.
Teens Sent to Hospital, Suffer Seizures After Spice Overdose
Parents are frightened by an easily accessible drug that many have never even heard of. Stacy Huberty of Hastings, Minnesota learned of synthetic marijuana in a very disturbing way. She received a call from her daughter that her 14-year-old son, Sam, had passed out on the bathroom floor after trying it once. She rushed to the hospital where he had been taken.
"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 says he told her, "it's not an illegal substance to have" and "no charges could be filed."
Her painfully-shy son remembers 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.'"
Though they may be powerless, police departments around Minneapolis say they are angry that so many of their young people are ending up in the hospital, often suffering from seizures.
"It is very frustrating to us, because there is nothing we can do about it," said Det. Dan Schoen of the Cottage Grove Police Department. "They are not going to stop selling it until they absolutely are forced to."
Paul 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."