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By Paresh Dave, Los Angeles Times

A week after more than 100 people in Texas fell ill from synthetic cannabis, the Drug Enforcement Administration has arrested at least 150 people in a 29-state sweep to combat the use of substances that mimic the highs of marijuana, methamphetamine or LSD.

Although not always marketed as drugs, products such as K2, Spice, Molly and Purple Wave have come under increasing scrutiny because of their popularity among teenagers and young adults. The DEA considers the synthetics illegal and dangerous, though the industry has tried to skirt the rules and challenge prosecutions by making minor ingredient changes and labeling the goods as “not for human use.”

Police and hospitals in Texas have said that a bad batch of K2 may have contributed to overdoses that required hospitals to treat more than 100 people in the first few days of May, mainly in Austin and Dallas. Sale of K2 is illegal under Texas state law.

“There’s a cluster of people with severe anxiety, some with seizures, that could be because of synthetic cannaboids,” said Dr. Miguel Fernandez, director of South Texas Poison Center. “I would caution people not to use them because they are not like typical marijuana.”

The DEA’s effort Wednesday, which stretched from California to Florida, involved the seizure of more than $20 million in cash and products. The DEA said hundreds of thousands of individual packets of ready-to-sell synthetic drugs were hauled off.

It was the second phase of an ongoing crackdown, the agency said. Last year, federal agents arrested at least 227 people and seized $60 million in cash and assets, including the equivalent of about 3 million single-use packets of K2.

Many of the ingredients are made at low cost in Chinese labs that take online orders. Some of Wednesday’s seizures took place at package screening locations at U.S. borders.

Agents also conducted raids in Orlando, Florida; Iowa City, Iowa; and Birmingham, Alabama.

Aurora, Colorado, Police Chief Dan Oates said his department joined the sweep after a 15-year-old boy died last summer of synthetic marijuana poisoning. He had vial of a product called Monkey Spice next to his bed, Oates said.

Authorities raided 10 locations in Aurora, including a jewelry shop and some corner markets. Although no Spice was found, several people were arrested.

The DEA has said some of the money from synthetic drug sales is being sent to the Middle East, including Yemen, Syria and Lebanon. And some of the products are marketed as jewelry cleaners or even “plant food,” the agency said in a statement.

The drugs usually produce the same effects as their better-known counterparts such as MDMA or cocaine. They can cause vomiting, hallucinations and high blood pressure.

Last year, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reported 29,000 emergency department visits nationwide in 2011 as a result of fake marijuana usage, up from 11,000 in 2010.

Photo: melloveschallah via Flickr.com

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