Why synthetic marijuana might not be illegal

Illinois legislators approved an amendment to the state's controlled substances act last spring in an attempt to curb the sale and use of synthetic drugs.

Gov. Bruce Rauner signed the bill into law a few months later.

Less than a year after that, an outbreak of severe bleeding and at least two deaths are being linked to the ingestion of these materials, many of which are found for sale at tobacco shops, convenience stores and other retail sites throughout the state.

Health officials, legal experts and law enforcement agents said that's because manufacturers of the synthetic drugs are staying one step ahead of the law.

"The laws keep changing and the chemicals keep changing," said Armando Reyes, regulatory compliance manager with the Will County Health Department Behavioral Health Division. "In just the last half dozen years, the dynamics of the chemical breakdown in these products have adjusted to changed laws at least six times."

That means every time the legislature adds a particular chemical combination to the list of controlled substances, manufacturers of synthetic cannabinoid drugs - marketed as "fake weed" - change the recipe of their product to avoid violation. Apparently, this time some synthetic cannabinoid manufacturers are adding a chemical often found in rat poison, which caused the bleeding, health officials said.

As of Thursday, the Illinois Department of Public Health has reported 89 cases throughout the state of severe bleeding linked to use of synthetic cannabinoid products. Two people have died, they said. The majority of cases are in downstate Peoria and Tazewell counties, but 24 have been reported in Chicago, six in suburban Cook County, and DuPage, Kane and Will county officials have reported one each.

Attempts by the state legislature to make synthetic drugs illegal has often resulted in manufacturers changing the formula of the product to avoid violation of the controlled substances act, which critics say has made these products even more dangerous. Associated Press/February 2008

The synthetic drugs causing the injuries contain an anti-clotting agent that keeps existing wounds from healing by creating a potassium deficiency, state health officials explained. The Illinois Department of Public Health reports the drug has caused blood in urine, bloody noses and internal bleeding.

Oftentimes the materials are also marketed as something entirely different, like potpourri or incense, and carry labels that warn against human consumption.

Ben Ruddell, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union, says the proliferation of synthetic drugs is a microcosm of the nation's "40-plus years of failed drug policies." The ACLU opposed the legislation last year because Ruddell said it merely "added a whole bunch of new controlled substances to the list" and "prohibition is not working."

Ruddell believes the demand for synthetic cannabis would decline if the state moved to legalize real marijuana, like many other states have already. Meanwhile, he said the ingredients in synthetic drugs could become more dangerous.

"They're just moving on to things that haven't been banned yet or moving on to other methods of dealing it," he said.

State police officials said troopers are stepping up enforcement of the sale of synthetic drugs.

"In many cases it's a felony to sell or possess it, and if troopers come across it on the road they are treating it like a controlled substance," said Lt. Matt Boerwinkle, a state police spokesman.

None of these products are regulated by the federal government. Reyes said in that way they are similar to most vitamins that don't get U.S. Food and Drug Administration oversight, either.

"It's up to the consumer to beware," he said.

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