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Stronger than pot, easier to hide, sell

ST. CLOUD — It can be made to look like tobacco, herbal incense or a typical baking spice.

But it packs twice as much of the active ingredient in marijuana, and the side effects can be life-threatening. Synthetic marijuana is legal for all ages and typically sold as an incense. Officials are seeing more of it in St. Cloud-area schools.

Several Minnesota cities have banned the substance, and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration plans to temporarily control five chemicals used to make synthetic marijuana.

But St. Cloud school district chemical health counselor Dan Becker said that isn't enough, because people who make synthetic marijuana can just create a new chemical recipe to get around a ban.

Becker has become the area's expert on synthetic marijuana. In his small office at McKinley Area Learning Center, he has dozens of packages of synthetic marijuana that have been taken from students.


"A year ago you couldn't find it anywhere," Becker said.

Readily available

But now synthetic marijuana can be purchased in local shops and online. Becker said the use of the substance has expanded quickly because it's so easy to buy on the Internet.

Users describe switching from marijuana to synthetic marijuana as like switching from Coke to Diet Coke. The first time they use it, they can get sick or just dislike it.

"It's an acquired taste," Becker said.

But once users get used to it, they never go back to marijuana, he said. The buzz is stronger, it's cheaper and it's more accessible.


It's also difficult for parents to detect. The substance doesn't have a scent; some manufacturers mix it with fragrances such as strawberry or cookies and cream.


"How can marijuana compete with that?" Becker said.

Every maker is his or her own chemist, mixing different chemicals to get the effects they want, Becker said. Then those combined chemicals are mixed with an organic substance so it can be smoked.

Becker said that makes the drug unpredictable, just like making chocolate chip cookies: Just as there's no way to guarantee how many chips are in each cookie, there's no way to know how much of any chemical is in a batch of synthetic marijuana.

"They don't know how powerful the batch is," he said.

The body reacts

But it is powerful. Marijuana used in the 1970s and 1980s typically had 7 percent to 10 percent THC, the active ingredient, Becker said. Marijuana now sold has 45-65 percent THC. The chemicals in synthetic marijuana are 100 percent THC.

That means a stronger buzz, but also makes the drug much more dangerous. Becker said because of the potency, the body thinks it's overdosing.

The body responds by increasing blood flow to try to flush out the drug, which can lead to heart attack or stroke.


The No. 1 symptom of someone being on the drug is an elevated heart rate. Other symptoms include headaches, nausea, dry mouth, irritability and restlessness.

Schools have started noticing students who are restless and unable to settle down. Instead of looking to see if they are hyperactive, they should check the possibility that the restlessness is caused by synthetic marijuana, Becker suggests.

Almost every day, school officials are finding the substance on students, he said.

Dan Schramel, 20, used to use synthetic marijuana and says he knows a lot of people who continue to use it. Friends introduced him to the drug and he used it because it wouldn't show up on drug tests. He says the drug produces a much stronger high than marijuana.

But not all of his experiences were good. Some of the batches tasted bad. He experienced trouble breathing and would lose his balance. One night he got so sick that he now wonders if he should have gone to the hospital.

Schramel said he has been off synthetic marijuana for two months and is working to get his life back on track.

Drug-test trials

It's only recently that a drug test has been able to show synthetic marijuana use. MedTox Laboratories Inc. has a test that can identify the presence of metabolites of JWH-018 and JWH-073 in urine.


Stearns County Drug Court has added synthetic marijuana to the list of drugs participants can't use if they are in the program, using the MedTox test to find it.

But that test finds only two of the chemicals that can be used to make synthetic marijuana. Becker said there's a limitless number of chemicals that can be used to make synthetic marijuana. So every time one is banned, manufacturers can create a new chemical.

MedTox Scientific Director Gregory Janis said the company's test looks only at JWH-018 and JWH-073, because those are the two common chemicals he has found in products available in Minnesota.

Janis buys new products from different shops and tests them to see what chemicals are in them. He thinks the next big chemical used will be JWH-250, because that's what's being recommended in shops and he's seeing it more in the products.

Janis said there have been no long-term studies about the effects of synthetic marijuana, so no one knows its risks.

"This is just the start," Janis said.

DEA reacts

The federal Drug Enforcement Administration plans to temporarily ban five chemicals used to make the drug: JWH-018, JWH-073, JWH-200, CP-47,497 and cannabicyclohexanol. Most Minnesota cities with bans list three chemicals.


In a Nov. 24 news release, the DEA said it would ban the chemicals after "no fewer than 30 days" from the time the release was issued. DEA spokeswoman Dawn Dearden said the day the ban goes into effect hasn't been set. But once it is in effect, it will last at least a year with the possibility of a six-month extension.

The temporary control makes it illegal to possess or sell the chemicals or products that contain them. During that year the DEA and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services will further study whether the chemicals and products should be permanently controlled.

The chemicals will be designated as Schedule I substances, which is the most restrictive category for unsafe, highly abused substances with no medical use.

The DEA took the step toward banning the chemicals because they have not been approved by the FDA for human consumption, and there is no oversight of the manufacturing process. The DEA also noted the growing popularity of the substance, especially among teens and young adults.

There has been an increasing number of reports to poison control centers about the drug's negative effects. As of November, poison control centers had 2,300 calls relating to synthetic marijuana this year, according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers.

The association first noted an increase in calls a year ago.

Cities react

States and cities nationwide are already taking steps to ban the substances. At least 15 states and several area cities, including Little Falls and Princeton, have banned the substances.


There's been talk about banning herbal incense at the state level. But Becker says that doesn't make sense because the chemical can be put on anything.

Becker is wary of such bans because the chemical makeup of the substance can be easily changed to get the same effects but wouldn't be covered by the ban.

He thinks officials need to sit back and see where the drug use is going before passing legislation. In the meantime, school officials, parents and others need to work together to educate students about the drug's harmful effects.

A meeting was held recently with community leaders. So many people attended that Becker took it as a sign that the drug use is much more widespread than previously thought.

Another meeting is planned in January at the Stearns County Service Center.

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