Attorney General Jeffrey S. Chiesa today announced a statewide ban on the manufacture, distribution, sale, and possession of any of the hundreds of dangerous, manmade chemicals designed to mimic the effects of marijuana, commonly known as “synthetic marijuana,” “K2,” or “Spice.”
In April 2011, New Jersey adopted a temporary federal ban on five variants of synthetic marijuana. Pending state legislation would ban three variants of the drug, and pending federal legislation would ban additional synthetic marijuana substances.
However, hundreds of variants of the drug have been sold nationwide and in New Jersey, in defiance of attempts to declare synthetic marijuana illegal. According to reported data, between 2010 and 2011 the number of synthetic marijuana exposures reported to poison control centers jumped by 139 percent nationwide, and by an alarming 711 percent in New Jersey alone. Of the 146 cases reported in New Jersey during 2011, 92 percent resulted in symptoms alarming enough to require treatment in a healthcare facility. A recent, nationwide study funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse shows synthetic marijuana is the third most commonly abused drug by American high school seniors, after marijuana and abused prescription drugs.
Chiesa noted that the ban, issued yesterday by the Division of Consumer Affairs, is much more comprehensive than previous efforts to eliminate synthetic marijuana. It includes both broad and specific language that includes all possible variants of the drug.
“This expansive action is necessary due to the unique nature of synthetic marijuana and other so-called designer drugs. When one product is banned, the manufacturers and dealers find it all too easy to evade the law by creating new toxic products that have similar effects on the brain, but are not specifically identified as illegal,” Chiesa said. “Today, we are ending this dangerous game played by drug dealers. We are making it unambiguously clear that if a synthetic chemical is being sold because it mimics the effects of marijuana, the dealer is committing a crime.”
The order announced today bans ten entire classes of synthetic compounds that imitate the effects of marijuana, and all known or unknown variants of the drug that would fall within each class. The order also expressly includes “any other synthetic chemical compound that is a cannabinoid receptor agonist and mimics the pharmacological effect of naturally occurring cannabinoids” – in other words, any synthetic chemical that mimics the effects on the brain of marijuana’s active ingredient.
Effective immediately upon being signed yesterday by Thomas R. Calcagni, Director of the Division of Consumer Affairs, the Order adds these chemicals to the list of Schedule I Controlled Dangerous Substances in New Jersey. As Schedule I CDS, the drugs are now subject to the highest level of State control, like cocaine and heroin. Manufacture, distribution, sale, or possession of the chemicals is now a third-degree crime. Violators may be subject to a fine of up to $25,000 and imprisonment for a three- to five-year term.
“In addition to equipping law enforcement with the means to stop disreputable retailers from selling this poison in New Jersey, our order sets the record straight about the toxic nature of these chemical concoctions,” said Director Calcagni. “To the extent people once believed these substances were safe because they were legal – we’ve now made it perfectly plain that the sale and possession of these drugs is criminal, and their use is extremely dangerous and potentially deadly.”
The toxic ingredients of synthetic marijuana can have devastating effects on the user:
- Of the 146 cases of synthetic marijuana exposure reported to the New Jersey Poison Information and Education System in 2011, 92 percent resulted in symptoms alarming enough to require treatment in a healthcare facility.
- Synthetic marijuana has been linked to dangerous side effects including violent seizures, dangerously elevated heart rates, anxiety attacks, and hallucinations, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
- Published reports indicate users have committed suicide or suffered fatal injuries after suffering extreme panic attacks caused by synthetic marijuana use. Reports published in peer-reviewed journals associate synthetic marijuana use with psychosis in some patients.
- In 2010, the most recent year for which comprehensive data is available, poison control centers received reports about five deaths nationwide associated with synthetic marijuana.
- More recently, 14-year-old Brandon Rice, of Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania, reportedly died at Children’s Hospital in Lawrenceville, Pennsylvania on October 27, 2011, due to his use of synthetic marijuana smoked from a Pez candy dispenser. The severe damage to his lungs resulted in four months of suffering, prior to his death of an infection following a double lung transplant.
Despite the dangerous consequences of abuse, synthetic marijuana is growing in popularity as a drug of choice. According to poison control center data, its reported use has risen even more rapidly in New Jersey than in the nation as a whole:
- The New Jersey Poison Education and Information System received 146 calls reporting exposure to synthetic marijuana in 2011 – an alarming 711 percent increase from 2010. Seventy percent of the synthetic marijuana reports in 2011 originated in Middlesex, Ocean, Monmouth, Morris, Mercer, and Atlantic counties.
- Nationwide, poison control centers received 7,000 calls related to synthetic marijuana exposure – a 139 percent increase from 2010, according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers.
Synthetic marijuana is the third most commonly abused drug by high school seniors, after marijuana and abused prescription drugs, according to the 2011 Monitoring the Future Study, funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Synthetic marijuana is usually sold in small packets of approximately 500 milligrams to three grams, with brand names such as “K2,” “K3,” “Spice,” “Kush,” “Down 2 Earth,” “Comatose Candy,” and many others. The packets often contain a mixture of herbs and plant materials that have been coated with chemical agents that affect the brain. The products are often labeled as “incense” or “potpourri” in order to hide their true nature from law enforcement.
Packets of synthetic marijuana and other suspected designer drugs have been sold at gas stations, boardwalk novelty shops, and other locations across New Jersey. The packages often bear labels claiming the contents are not covered by any existing federal or state ban, creating the impression that they can be sold legally.
Data from the New Jersey State Police Office of Forensic Science illustrates how the sellers of these drugs have changed tactics to evade previous statewide and federal bans.
The Office of Forensic Science has tested hundreds of samples of “K2” products sent in by New Jersey law enforcement agencies since November 2010. Until March 31, 2011, virtually every positive test revealed one of only five popular variants of synthetic marijuana. All five of those variants were banned by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration on March 1.
Test results from the Office of Forensic Science show the sellers of these drugs adapted quickly in response to the new ban. Fewer and fewer samples sent in by law enforcement after April 1 tested positive for the five banned chemicals, and the dealers rapidly embraced 18 new variants of synthetic marijuana. Those new variants of the drug today represent nearly 100 percent of the synthetic marijuana products identified by law enforcement in New Jersey. None of the 18 new variants are covered by a Federal or New Jersey ban.
All of the products, however, are covered by the Order of the Director announced today.
New Jersey’s Controlled Dangerous Substances Act authorizes the Director of the Division of Consumer Affairs to classify a substance as a Schedule I CDS through the promulgation of a regulation, if the substance is found to have a high potential for abuse and no accepted medical use for treatment in the United States. The Act further authorizes the Director of Consumer Affairs to issue an order classifying a substance as a CDS, when the delays occasioned by promulgating a regulation would constitute an imminent danger to public health or safety. The Order signed yesterday will remain in effect for 270 days, or until a regulation is adopted. The administrative process of adopting a regulation includes a public hearing.
Today’s announcement follows the April 28, 2011 announcement of an Order by the Director of the Division of Consumer Affairs, banning a separate category of designer drugs – the highly deadly group of drugs commonly known as “bath salts.” So-called “bath salts” are not synthetic marijuana, but belong to another class of designer drugs that mimic the effects of cathinone – a psychotropic substance found in the African shrub khat.
After enacting the ban on so-called “bath salts” drugs, the Division of Consumer Affairs launched a statewide education and enforcement initiative in partnership with schools, universities, and police agencies across New Jersey, resulting in the seizure or voluntary surrender of a total of more than 2,900 packets of suspected designer drugs, with an estimated total value of approximately $75,000, and the arrests of six individuals allegedly dealing in the banned substances. Data from the New Jersey Poison Information and Education System indicates a sharp drop in the use of so-called “bath salts” drugs after the State’s education and enforcement action began.