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Huge Synthetic Marijuana Bust Highlights Growing Threat

2 minute read

Authorities raided about 80 locations on Wednesday in what officials are describing the synthetic marijuana bust in New York City history.

Ten people were listed in a federal indictment, charged with importing at least 10 kilograms of illegal compounds for making synthetic pot—enough to produce 260,000 packets for sale, amounting to about $30 million worth. Six were arrested in the raids, and four others listed in the indictment were still not in custody as of Wednesday evening, according to NBC New York.

The marijuana isn’t the real deal — and that’s what makes it dangerous, Preet Bharara, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, said.

“Despite sometimes being called synthetic marijuana, this stuff is not marijuana. It can cause unpredictably severe and even lethal effects,” he said at a news briefing. “It is not natural and it is not harmless in any sense of the word. In fact, some experts believe that spice can be up to 100 times more potent than pot.”

The compounds allegedly arrived in powdered form from China and shipped through commercial delivery channels to a processing facility in the Bronx, where they were combined with chemical solvents and then sprayed onto tea leaves, NBC New York reported.

The tea leaves were then packaged and sent to wholesale distributors, sold with names like AK-47, Blue Caution, Green Giant, and more, according to the indictment.

Side effects of smoking synthetic marijuana—which is also referred to as K2, Galaxy, Diamond, Rush, and Matrix—include anxiety, nausea, vomiting, rapid heart rate, tremors, seizures, and suicidal thoughts, NBC New York noted.

“What is being sold every day in bodegas and convenience stores throughout the city to teenagers, to homeless people, to addicts is literally poison,” Bharara said of synthetic pot. “Toxic chemicals that bind to receptors in the central nervous system to frightening and sometimes even deadly effect.”

Phone calls to U.S. poison centers increased by 225% in the first four months this year compared to the same time period in 2014, according to Bharara’s office. In New York state alone, synthetic pot is blamed for 2,300 emergency room visits in a single month.

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Write to Tanya Basu at tanya.basu@time.com