Holy cow, what have you been smoking?

— With the rising pop­ular­ity of syn­thet­ic marijuana, the city's po­lice de­part­ment has a good idea what it's all about.


What you don’t know not only might hurt you, it might get you in­to a lot of trouble.

And you don’t really know about syn­thet­ic marijuana. Ed­ward Dugan and Mi­chael Gar­vey Jr. do.

The stuff sold in con­veni­ence stores and gas sta­tions as “in­cense” could get you as high as marijuana does, make you sick, or both, said Gar­vey, dir­ect­or of the Phil­adelphia Po­lice De­part­ment’s forensic sci­ence bur­eau. You put your health at risk if you smoke it, he said, be­cause you really don’t know what you’re get­ting.

In­cense sold un­der a vari­ety of la­bels such as Kush, K2, Spice and Herb­al Smoke could con­tain sub­stances that are il­leg­al un­der a new Pennsylvania law, said Dugan, the bur­eau’s forensic labor­at­ory man­ager. You put your liberty at risk if you sell it.

Dugan can find those il­leg­al chem­ic­als when he tests ma­ter­i­al that po­lice of­ficers have con­fis­cated and have brought in­to the forensics lab at Eighth and Pop­lar streets. They’re called syn­thet­ic can­nabin­oids, and Dugan only re­cently has been test­ing for them be­cause they only re­cently have been out­lawed in Pennsylvania.

Sev­er­al have been banned by the U.S. Drug En­force­ment Ad­min­is­tra­tion.

Ac­cord­ing to fed­er­al of­fi­cials, syn­thet­ic marijuana is re­l­at­ively new to this coun­try, but, in the three to four years it’s been here, the drug has be­come pop­u­lar with Amer­ic­an teen­agers, second only to real marijuana.

Fed­er­al au­thor­it­ies also have re­por­ted a vari­ety of health  prob­lems as­so­ci­ated with syn­thet­ic marijuana use, in­clud­ing el­ev­ated heart rates, hal­lu­cin­a­tions and para­noid be­ha­vi­or.

That products con­tain­ing these chem­ic­als gave their users a high that couldn’t be de­tec­ted by any­thing but the most soph­ist­ic­ated ur­ine tests was the at­trac­tion for its users and, there­fore, for the storeown­ers who sold them. In­cense is cheap, easy to store and can be sold at a good markup. And it was all leg­al.

Em­phas­is on the word was.

In Au­gust, Pennsylvania’s con­trolled sub­stance law was amended to in­clude bans on eight of these chem­ic­als — and any chem­ic­als that are very much like them, Dugan said.

That should be a warn­ing to storeown­ers and their em­ploy­ees if they’ve been selling “in­cense,” be­cause they could be ar­res­ted for selling drugs that are no longer leg­al. Some mer­chants already have been bus­ted.

In Novem­ber, a Tor­res­dale Av­en­ue busi­ness­man was ar­res­ted on charges he was selling a de­sign­er drug. Jay Pa­tel’s pre­lim­in­ary hear­ing was con­duc­ted last week, said As­sist­ant Dis­trict At­tor­ney Eliza­beth Fisc­her. Some of the charges Pa­tel is fa­cing are felon­ies, she said. His next court date is later this month.

Not all syn­thet­ic can­nabin­oids are il­leg­al in Pennsylvania, Dugan said, adding there are hun­dreds of them. He said he re­cently found two such chem­ic­als, but they were mixed with chem­ic­als that were il­leg­al.

It’s potluck that what any­one is selling is le­git­im­ate or not, Gar­vey said. Be­cause syn­thet­ic marijuana is not pack­aged un­der con­trolled con­di­tions, neither buy­er nor seller can be sure what really is in the little foil en­vel­opes avail­able in loc­al stores and gas sta­tions, Dugan said.

And bey­ond the ques­tion of leg­al­ity, Gar­vey said, “you don’t know what it’s go­ing to do to your cus­tom­ers. That’s what’s scary when it comes to kids.”

People think that be­cause they are leg­ally buy­ing a pack­aged and labeled item — in a store, not a street corner — the product must be safe. It might not be, but you have no way of know­ing be­fore you use it, Gar­vey said.

Syn­thet­ic can­nabin­oids are pro­duced as powders and were cre­ated by med­ic­al re­search­ers, Dugan said. The powders are mixed with li­quids so they can be sprayed on vari­ous dried or­gan­ic mat­ter, pack­aged and sold.

Fed­er­al of­fi­cials have said many of the chem­ic­als are pro­duced over­seas and im­por­ted for pack­aging here, and China and In­dia are sources for much of the ma­ter­i­al that makes it to the United States. However, Dugan said a Mis­souri com­pany was pro­du­cing some can­nabin­oids.

In the po­lice lab, a pack­age of something that is sus­pec­ted of be­ing syn­thet­ic marijuana is opened and the con­tents are weighed. Solvents are used to ex­tract the chem­ic­als from the sub­stances they’ve been sprayed on, Dugan said.

The chem­ic­als are run through a ma­chine called a Gas Chro­ma­to­graph Mass Spec­tro­met­er, or GCMS, which ana­lyzes its chem­ic­al con­tent. That ana­lys­is, Dugan said, is com­pared to “con­trols” — the known chem­ic­al makeups of il­leg­al sub­stances.

This pro­cess isn’t in­stant­an­eous, Gar­vey and Dugan said, and has to be me­tic­u­lously doc­u­mented as it pro­ceeds.

For po­lice of­ficers on the street, there are some chal­lenges.

There cur­rently are no “spot tests” or “street tests” that of­ficers can use to quickly test for syn­thet­ic can­nabin­oids, Dugan said. These are quick checks of­ficers can use on con­fis­cated sub­stances be­fore they are sent to the forensics bur­eau for con­firm­at­ory test­ing. There are fast checks for marijuana, co­caine and heroin, Dugan said.

To raise of­ficers’ aware­ness of syn­thet­ic marijuana, the lab is pre­par­ing a short present­a­tion that will be shown at shift roll calls, Gar­vey said. ••


You can reach at jloftus@bsmphilly.com.

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