Both the New York City and New York state health departments banned the sale of synthetic marijuana Thursday.
The city Health Department issued an order, effective immediately, to get the drug off shelves and warned that all sales and distribution must "cease immediately."
"Because they are sold in stores, people may believe they are safe," said city Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley, referring to the small packets of the drug. "We are ... telling everyone in New York City to never use them."
Synthetic marijuana, which is manufactured by chemists in underground labs, is commonly sold as incense or potpourri. The drug looks similar to pot and is smoked the same way. It can be found on corner stores and in smoke shops citywide, sold under brand names such as "Mr. Nice Guy," "Spice," "Galaxy Gold," and "K2."
The drug has been available in New York City for about three years now. But, while growing in popularity, fake pot has been linked to increased heart rate, seizures, loss of consciousness and even death. One Staten Island mother told the New York Daily News her 29-year-old son wound up in a psychiatric hospital after he became addicted to the drug.
That's because synthetic marijuana is not pot, explain health experts.
"Synthetic cannabinoids are made in a lab that have one effect in common with marijuana but potentially many other different effects," said Dr. Robert Hoffman, director of the city's Poison Control Center. "They are sold as herbal products, giving users a perception of safety. But, in fact, they are toxic drugs sprayed on plant leaves."
Anyone caught hawking the drug will be subject to fines. There is currently statewide legislation pending in Albany that would make selling it a criminal offense. That proposal, however, has yet to become law.
Calls up to poison centers
Source: NYC Department of HealthCalls about health effects from the use of synthetic marijuana to New York City's Poison Control Center have increased in recent years:
4 calls were made about the drug in 2010.
71 calls were made in 2011.
In some cases, symptoms have been minor, including shortness of breath, dizziness and vomiting.
But other calls have been much more frightening, where callers report high blood pressure, hallucinations and seizures.
Federal crackdown sought
There is an existing federal ban on five of the chemicals used to make synthetic pot, but critics say the law lacks teeth, and, either way, is set to expire in six months. U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer backs new legislation that would ban fake pot nationwide.
Too risky to be sold in New York
Synthetic pot is only the latest thing to be banned in New York state. The state Senate voted to ban herbal drug salvia in May of last year; and boozy Four Loko "energy drink" removed the high amounts of caffeine from its product after widespread criticism.