A decade ago, synthetic marijuana hit shelves at skate and head shops with two big advantages over real grass: It was legal and it wouldn't show up in drug tests. A decade later, fake pot could get you in more trouble than real pot in Oregon, yet remains widely available.
Synthetic marijuana, made by infusing dried herbs with lab-synthesized compounds that replicate the chemicals in marijuana, was originally sold as a legal alternative to real weed for the law-biding and urine-test-fearing. Lawmakers, including the Oregon Legislature, got wise and changed laws to target fake pot. Testing labs have also caught up.
Yet the drug is still popular among teenagers. As many as 80 percent of the minors at De Paul Treatment Centers' youth facility have used synthetic pot, says drug counselor Charles Dickerman. "They feel they are less likely to be caught [than if they used marijuana]," he says.
That notion dates back to the early days of fake pot, when brands like "Spice" and "Kush" took off. Governments responded by making it illegal. The federal government banned the five most common brands, including Spice. Oregon went further, banning any chemical formula the state's chemists thought could be used as synthetic pot, plus "any other cannabinoid receptor agonist." Basically, that means any compound producing a marijuanalike high.
If you're caught with synthetic marijuana, it's a felony, just like having meth or heroin. That means mandatory jail time. Meanwhile, Oregon reduced penalties for actual cannabis. Now, less than an ounce of pot will get you a fine of as little as $500. That's equal to the penalty for tossing a cigarette out a car window.
In reality, though, you'll have little trouble buying synthetic pot. WW stopped by two Portland smoke shops asking for Spice. We were offered chemicals with names like "Potpourri" ("People say it's great stuff") and "Sashay" ("Same kind of thing").
How is that possible? Turns out, the Chinese, Indian and Eastern European companies making the drugs move faster than the government, constantly tweaking their formulas to create new chemicals with similar effects. Even though Oregon's law is sweeping, police don't know something is banned unless a lab tests it.
More than 300 different chemicals are used as fake marijuana, says Keith Maxey, who tests the substances for Michigan-based Cayman Chemical. Having so many chemicals can be dangerous to smokers, though. The chemicals are not tested in humans, and police have blamed the stuff in cases of kidney failure, which can't be caused by pot.
Synthetic smokers can now be busted by urine analysis labs, says Terry Johnson, owner of ARCpoint Labs in Vancouver. ARCpoint can test for 11 different kinds of chemicals, and Multnomah, Clackamas and Washington Counties all test parolees for the substances.
The synthetic stuff also doesn't have much love among legalization advocates. Paul Stanford, a leading legalization advocates, said it's "unfortunate" that head shops sell synthetic cannabis. "I wish those people that sell pipes wouldn't do that," he said. "That's unethical."