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. ••EndFragment