Fake pot can have real consequences

by | Jun 3, 2012 | Comment, Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

It sounds relatively harmless. Synthetic marijuana. Like pot for people who don’t want to get arrested.

For a while, that’s kind of how it worked. Hiding under the guise of “natural” herbal ingredients, with labels like “organic” and “herbal incense” and “fake weed,” the substance was able to spread from its European beginnings to a worldwide product, dispensed right out in the open.

Gas stations sold it. Smoke shops. Party stores. You could use it and still pass a drug test.

The problem is, there’s nothing fake about what fake weed does to some of its users.

And now that we know it, we must stop it.

Reports of psychotic behavior, violence and hallucinations should make every potential buyer beware. Side effects linked to seizures and anxiety attacks should, too.

And the fact that synthetic compounds are being used to make this stuff, changed and switched as if part of a mad scientist chemistry lab, should leave any potential customer running for the hills.

But the problem isn’t just the buyers.

It’s the sellers.

A judge on a mission

Now, I could understand this with your standard issue drug dealers. They are hard to identify, they slip into the shadows, they work streets corners and back rooms.

But the culprits in the synthetic marijuana story are often convenience stores, gas stations, smoke shops – easily found places of business that presumably need a license to operate and, most glaringly, someone to order the inventory.

So what’s the problem? If the same person who checks off the cigarette, potato chip and Pepsi orders is the person unpacking the Spice, K2 or other versions of this newest poison, why can’t they be identified? I doubt gas stations have a separate Shady Drug Purchasing Officer.

When a Troy district court judge, Kirsten Nielsen Hartig, filled up with gas recently, she decided to see how easy buying the dangerous substance could be.

“I asked for it, and the clerk really didn’t want to talk about it,” she said. “He reached down, grabbed a box and it had 15 different kinds to choose from….

“He said, ‘I don’t even know what it is. Just take your pick and I’ll ring it up.’

When he did, Hartig said, it was rung up under “tobacco.”

That’s one very dangerous smoke.

Tell your kids the truth

States like Michigan are taking rapid action to prohibit the sale of this stuff, which has been linked to deaths all over the country, frequently young people who, under its influence, grow inexplicably violent or express urges to do damage.

A Washington state teenager stabbed a young woman to death. A Minnesota man shot himself in the head. Every story you read scares you more and more. And the fact that some claim it is now the third-most popular substance among high school-age kids should really make us shiver.

So should this: While many of these synthetic marijuana substances were made illegal in the last two years, there’s a huge loophole.

“It’s a very complex compound,” Hartig said. “All the manufacturers have to do is change just one of the compounds … or the amount of that compound … to circumvent the law and make it legal again.

“So basically the drug dealers, the drug pushers, are one step ahead of the law.”

When I asked why the manufacturers couldn’t be pursued, Hartig said on 15 different packets she examined, none had a name of a maker on it. “We think that it’s coming from India and China mostly,” she said, “but we have no idea what’s in it.”

When I asked the obvious question – “who is ordering this stuff?” – she replied, “That’s a good question.”

It needs to be answered. And it needs to be stopped.

Michigan is doing a good thing by encouraging businesses to display signs that say they are not carrying any of these products, and urging customers to stay away from establishments that do.

Meanwhile, the authorities should crack down on the latter. If we would chase down a drug dealer in a schoolyard, why wouldn’t we pursue a store that keeps a clearly dangerous product under the counter, and rings it up falsely under tobacco?

It sounds relatively harmless. Synthetic marijuana. But do a little research. Then sit your kids down and tell them the truth.

It isn’t.

Contact Mitch Albom: 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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