HUNTINGTON BEACH (CBSLA.com) — Officials say use of a dangerous new drug is on the rise in the Southland, and parents are shocked that it remains legal and accessible even as it sends teens to the hospital with terrifying health effects.
Synthetic marijuana, known as “spice”, “potpourri” or “K2”, is a compound made from fertilizer from China, mixed with lettuce leaves. The chemicals in it mimic a marijuana high, though the impact is five times more powerful.
Smoking spice causes agitation, confusion, hallucinations and vomiting. In some cases, heart attacks and even coma have been reported.
Cyrus Read, 17, said he smoked spice because “it was fun.”
“It didn’t show up on drug tests, so it was easy to get away with at school,” said the Huntington Beach teen. He said he would smoke it every night before he went to bed, thinking that it was “not a big deal.”
His habit came to an abrupt end two months ago when it landed him in an emergency room. His mother, Holly, said her son was drooling and became incoherent.
Nationwide, the American Association of Poison Control Centers reported 659 calls of exposure to synthetic marijuana in just the first three months of 2013.
Read said spice was easily accessible at a smoke shop down the street from his Huntington Beach home.
Unlike other drugs, spice is legal in dozens of states, including California.
And parents are stymied by the drug, which despite its potent effects, does not show up on drug tests.
Another Orange County mother, who asked that her name not be used to protect her teen daughter’s identity, was also unable to detect her daughter’s addiction to the drug until she rushed her to the hospital.
“She couldn’t move for three hours,” she said. “She was semi-paralyzed” and vomiting, while experiencing hallucinations and paranoia.
Like Cyrus, prior to her emergency room visit, the teen had been testing clean on drug tests. Even in the ER, doctors found no trace of an illegal controlled substance in her blood because the substance is not outlawed.
“I was just livid,” she said.
Even if parents think it could never happen to their kids, “it can happen to any family, any place, any time.”
Homeland Security Agent Rob Goetsch told CBS2’s Stacey Butler that Orange County is at the center of the crisis, with some of the highest numbers of the manufacturing and exporting operations in the nation.
“We are literally up against a new epidemic,” said Goetsch. “And we are so far behind the curve at this point it’s very difficult for us to catch up.”
“These drugs are so unregulated and so untested you have no idea what’s in them,” he said.
Authorities are now tracking active warehouses throughout Orange County, from San Juan Capistrano to Newport Beach to Anaheim. Goetsch said authorities have seized more than $50 million of product in the last year alone.
One former manufacturer says those who produce it know that the feds are watching.
“They’re nervous. Everybody’s nervous. They know that one day, somebody will come raid the warehouse.”
But despite federal storage facilities packed with the drug from San Diego to Seattle, no arrests have been made in California.
Every time the DEA labels a chemical compound in spice an illegal controlled substance, the manufacturers of the chemical fertilizer in China simply replace it with another compound that is equally as harmful.
“It’s unbelievable how difficult it is for us,” said Goetsch.
Goetsch said authorities have to prove that the seller of the synthetic drug sold it to someone with the intent to consume it. As it stands, the product is labeled “potpourri” and bears a sticker warning “not for human consumption.”
Federal agents are fighting a losing battle as manufacturers make millions of dollars each month.
Agents fear the profits may be used to fund other countries that wish to harm the U.S., according to Goetsch, who said they have found evidence that money is being funneled to countries like Pakistan, Syria and Iraq.
But some Orange County moms say if the goal is to hurt Americans, the manufacturers have already succeeded.
“They call it a designer drug,” said one mom. “I call it just pure evil.”