Bartow-Cartersville Drug Task Force agents warn of the dangers associated with the use of these "legal" drugs.
"They call it 'synthetic marijuana,' but it really isn't anything like marijuana," DTF agent Brian Bunce said. "There's the old adage that marijuana is grown, it's not like meth where it's made in a chemistry set and things like that.
"But that's not the case with this, what they call 'synthetic marijuana,' and people get this misconception that they see a green leafy material and immediately associate that with assimilance to marijuana. So you have the problem of the drug itself, but they don't know what else they're ingesting from the actual material in there," Bunce said.
If such substances can cause harm, why, then, are they considered legal? The answer: the chemical components are not considered illegal and the product is marketed as incense or for other household purposes -- "not for human consumption."
"When you hear people talking about potpourri, it really is sometimes potpourri," Bunce said. "The problem is the chemical that is sprayed on it afterward ... you can't see the chemical so there's no way to know and as law enforcement we have to send it to the crime lab and wait for confirmation from them."
Yet this potpourri is not the only synthetic drug on the market raising concerns for law enforcement and parents.
"Bath salts are an entirely different item," Bunce said. "It's not something we've run across in Bartow County."
But items marketed as "Lazy Cakes" have been located in retail locations throughout the area.
"When we run across it, we seize it and handle it like a Schedule I, and we assume, based on the information we have, that it's illegal and we send it to the crime lab and take the appropriate action, whether it be arrest warrants or the like," Bunce said.
"A few months ago we got a report from a concerned citizen saying there were brownies being sold at a convenience store and the person buying them had to show the cashier an ID to be over [a certain age]," he said. "So we looked into it and did a control purchase and contacted our partners with the Georgia Drug and Narcotics Agency who are connected with the FDA and they looked into it.
"The FDA investigated this company that distributed [the brownies] out of Tennessee and manufactured them in Florida, and the end result was that these brownies contained melatonin and they were deemed unsafe and the company was told to remove the melatonin or we would remove the product from the shelves," Bunce said.
The sale of K2, also known as "spice," has been banned in 12 states, including Kansas, Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, Missouri, Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas, Oregon, Illinois, Michigan and Kentucky. Some cities in Texas also have banned the substance. Yet similar products remain on the shelves of convenience stores, head shops and tobacco stores.
How are these deadly scents able to be sold legally? Each time legislation bans a particular ingredient of the components, a new mixture is almost immediately created with a different molecular structure, making it pass the test of legality.
"We get more creative [with ways] for controlling the drugs and they create new ones," Bunce said. "Here recently, what I see as being marketed as consumer-friendly alternatives, clearly are suspect at the least [for some sort of illegal component]."
According to the American Association of Poison Control Centers in a statement in July, at least 2,700 people had fallen ill since January due to their use of the "incense." Compared to the 2010 yearly total of 3,200, the pace is estimated to nearly fivefold by the end of the year.
No deaths have been reported in Georgia related to the chemical this year, but K2 has been blamed in the deaths of other people. One of those users was 18-year-old David Rozga of Indianola, Ind., in 2010 after using the substance and complaining to a friend that he "felt like he was in hell," according to his father. This feeling led the teen, who had never suffered from depression, to commit suicide.
Another death related to the drug involved another teen who crashed his car into a house after driving under the influence of synthetic marijuana.
Former Gov. Sonny Perdue signed H.B. 1309 last year, placing K2 on the Schedule I controlled substances list alongside heroin. Schedule I, according to Bunce, is the most dangerous rating. K2's most active ingredient is Salvinorin A, a hallucinogen.
"The problem that we have is there's no field test kit for it and no way to look at it and say this is or isn't an illegal item because it really doesn't have anything to do with the leafy substance that you actually see," Bunce said. "Compounding that [problem] is due to budgetary reasons the crime lab has closed its satellite labs and, for that reason, the main lab is starting to go behind again, making it a lot longer for test results to come back.
"It's an ever-changing problem," Bunce continued. "Their marketing strategy, in my opinion, is to make it similar to marijuana and to sell this as a legal alternative. ... Because it is new and upcoming, the Georgia crime lab has a problem detecting it in the system, so when we take a urine or blood sample and send it to the lab, they're still in the developmental stages of identifying these compounds in the blood to assist us in prosecution with things like DUI.
"[Suspects] can tell you they're under the influence of what's in the package, but what's in the package?" Bunce said.
Bartow residents who see suspected "spice," or products that are suspicious on retail shelves, are encouraged to contact the Bartow-Cartersville Drug Task Force at 770-607-1169.