June 2, 2011 -- Products that mimic the effects of marijuana and have potentially dangerous side effects are being sold via popular online shopping web sites like Amazon.com, and at suburban malls, convenience stores and gas stations.
High school students and members of the military use "legal marijuana" or "herbal incense," marketed as K2, Spice and Potpourri, to get high because the products are legal, easily available and do not show up on drug tests.
They can also be inexpensive. "Purple Diesel Spice - Twisted Pourri," packaged with a bright purple label, sells for just $7.99 per gram via Amazon. An ABC News investigation found these products available on-line and at stores for anywhere from $15 to $85. Amazon.com did not respond to requests for comment.
The innocuous sounding names belie the ugly and sometimes devastating side effects, according to Missouri Poison Control Center Director Anthony Scalzo.
Scalzo said the side effects include heart rate stimulation to exaggerated levels, extreme blood pressure elevation, agitation, paranoia, and hallucinations. "Beyond the acute effects [there] are psychiatric effects that have led individuals to harm themselves, sometimes fatally, and exhibit extreme paranoia and delusions not unlike schizophrenia or other psychoses," said Scalzo.
The products have spurred more than 4,000 calls to poison control centers around the country since 2010 and have been linked to deaths. The parents of 18-year-old David Rozga of Indianola, Iowa say their son committed suicide after he smoked K2 and became overwhelmed with anxiety.
"He just continued to become agitated -- indicating that he felt like he was in hell," said David's father Mike Rozga.
Detective Sergeant Brian Sher, who investigated Rozga's death for the Indianola police department, is adamant that smoking K2 is the only thing that could have triggered the suicide. "I want people to know that," said Sher. "There are nay-sayers, but I can say definitively there's just nothing in the investigation to show that. Given what we know about K2 and Spice, David's anxiety, his feeling like he was in hell, has happened in many other cases."
Spice Road Starts in China
The business is truly multinational, but the "spice" road begins in China. ABC News tracked the trail of the chemicals back to laboratories outside Shanghai.
An ABC News producer in Shanghai went undercover to meet with two factory representatives from Sciencya Laboratories at a park outside a downtown hotel, and was offered large quantities of the legal chemicals at $5800 a kilo with a speedy delivery time for her convenience.
"She said I should order about 10 kilos and arrival could happen through air mail in 4-7 days. And then she asked me to put them in my bag and not let people see them," said producer Rebecca Kanthor. The woman representing SciencYa also gave Kanthor samples of the chemicals.
Once manufacturers in the United States have bought the chemicals in bulk, mostly from China, they apply the chemicals to plant matter to create "spice" and other variants of "legal marijuana" or "herbal incense," then distribute their products either to wholesalers, directly to convenience stores, or to individuals who buy them on the internet.
ABC News found a wholesale operation in Denver that supplies a variety of products of all kinds to mom and pop shops in the area. An ABC News producer wearing a hidden camera recorded video of boxes of spice products in the back of the warehouse sold at bulk prices.
A representative of the warehouse said his company is in the process of phasing out spice products and that it only sells products with legal chemicals in them.
Christopher Van Winkle, who went to state prison in 2006 for manufacturing and delivering marijuana, makes and markets his own brand of herbal incense, "Magnum," and sells it on his website, TheChemicalBay.com.
He runs his operation out of apartment complex in a residential part of Bloomington, Illinois.
Van Winkle did not respond to an ABC News request for comment.
Van Winkle, like most other herbal incense manufacturers, labels his products as "not for human consumption," which exempts them from regulation by the Food and Drug Administration.
The laboratories in China also use language to avoid such regulation. The web site for a Shanghai pharmaceutical company, Chemchallenger, states "All products on this web site are only for research!" SciencYa Laboratories also says it sells only chemicals that have not been banned by U.S. law.
DEA Bans Chemicals
In March, the Drug Enforcement Administration imposed an emergency ban on five of chemicals that have shown up in some products, but there are hundreds more, and chemists can easily and quickly change the formula to escape a ban.
The chemicals are also manufactured in laboratories in Russia, India, and even Cameroon, making it difficult for the Drug Enforcement Agency to cut them off at the source.
"The web site may be located in one particular country or somewhere within the United States, but the actual product is being manufactured someplace else through an intermediary," said DEA Special Agent Gary Boggs.
"You really don't know exactly what the source of these products are," Boggs said, adding that there is no way to tell if there is any quality control at the labs.
"You don't know what conditions they were manufactured under. You don't know what kind of training the individuals had that are manufacturing these particular products."
Boggs said that greed is the driving force behind the making of these dangerous chemicals.
"Despite the fact that these products cause harm, many of these businesses are distributing these products solely for the profit that they can generate," he said.