Susan Casiglia started to notice disturbing changes in her son's demeanor four months ago, about the same time he started bringing home colorful packages of potpourri and incense.
The packages warn that the contents are not for human consumption. But Casiglia said her son, looking for a high, smoked the products, which he purchased at a convenience store down the street in Brooksville.
On the verge of official adulthood, the teen developed a temper and was often agitated, Casiglia said. She pleaded with him to stop smoking.
"He says it's legal, and what am I going to do?" she recalled.
When their confrontations became physical, Casiglia kicked him out and filed a restraining order.
The 48-year-old mother of three is convinced her son is a casualty of what many call "legal weed" or "designer pot" — herbs marketed as air freshener but laced with chemicals that, when smoked, mimic the high of marijuana.
Products with names such as Red Magic, Serenity and Blueberry Meditation, which hit the shelves of head shops a few years ago, can now be found in convenience stores for as little as $6.
Easily accessible and undetected in drug screenings, the products are popular with teens and adults alike, experts say.
But some people who smoke the products have begun showing up in emergency rooms suffering from agitation, paranoia, tremors, racing hearts, high blood pressure, shortness of breath, even psychotic episodes. And the number of reported poison cases in Pasco and Hernando counties is on the rise.
The trend has spurred action at every level of government.
On Wednesday, the federal Drug Enforcement Administration extended its temporary ban of five chemicals used in the products. States are creating their own laws, even as manufacturers alter the ingredients to try to skirt the bans.
The Florida Legislature is poised to pass a new law that adds compounds to the list of those already banned, and Hernando school officials are adding the products to their list of banned substances.
Vice detectives for the Pasco Sheriff's Office are buying packages and sending them off to labs to be tested for illegal ingredients. And last week, Hernando deputies fanned out across the county to warn retailers that the products on their shelves might already contain illegal ingredients and that a host of other products will probably be outlawed soon, too.
The products can be purchased on the Internet, but Hernando Sheriff Al Nienhuis said he hopes the education campaign will make it more difficult for county residents — especially teens — to walk into a store and pay cash.
"It should concern these businesses that they could be doing some damage to their customers," Nienhuis said. "We want to make sure we educate them so they cannot claim ignorance."
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Karen Arsenault wrinkled her nose Monday when Hernando Deputy Abraham Dowdell explained why he had come calling to Deep Blue Liquors.
"Our owners are highly, highly against that, so no worries here," said Arsenault, a clerk at the store on County Line Road in Spring Hill.
By the end of last week, deputies had visited all of the 110 retailers on their list. Of those, 19 carried incense or potpourri products.
Several store owners and managers said they don't carry the products because of health concerns and legal dangers. Some decided to take the products off the shelves before deputies left their stores.
Other retailers worried about losing money on inventory, said Hernando Sheriff's Sgt. John Cameron. A Spring Hill liquor store owner who had just received a new shipment said she planned to sell the rest of it but would get rid of whatever she has left when the new law takes effect.
So far, the Pasco Sheriff's Office's random tests haven't turned up any illegal substances, said spokesman Kevin Doll.
Synthetic cannabinoids were born in 1995 in a Clemson University laboratory, with medical research in mind. They are structurally different from tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, but they have the same biological effects on the human body.
The compound was first disclosed in a research paper in 1998, and entrepreneurs apparently re-created the chemical for commercial sale.
In 2010, the DEA announced its intention to ban five synthetic compounds by characterizing them as Schedule I narcotics, the most restrictive category under the Controlled Substances Act. The ban took effect last March.
The six-month extension issued last week gives the agency's researchers more time to study the myriad compounds that crop up in various products and decide how to permanently schedule the drugs, said DEA spokesman Jeffrey Scott.
It's a big challenge as manufacturers tweak chemical compounds and change the names of products, Scott said.
"It's something of a game of whack-a-mole at the moment," he said.
Most of the chemicals are imported from manufacturers in other countries, especially China, but underground labs in the United States increasingly are producing and synthesizing them. The DEA is investigating several large-scale importers and distributors, Scott said.
Florida's law took effect last summer, making sale or possession of more than 3 grams of the compounds a third-degree felony. Possession of 3 grams or less is a misdemeanor.
Attorney General Pam Bondi advocated for the legislation pending this session that will add to the list of banned chemical compounds in fake pot and bath salts, another stealth drug.
Marijuana shows up in field tests, giving deputies probable cause for an arrest, but there isn't yet a field test for synthetic pot. Authorities can write a report and send the material off to the lab for testing. If tests come back positive for the banned compounds, the State Attorney's Office can elect to prosecute.
That hasn't happened in Hernando yet, but it eventually will, said Assistant State Attorney Sonny McCathran.
Statistics indicate use of the products is on the rise, despite the bans.
The number of poison cases involving synthetic marijuana reported in Florida in 2010 doubled last year, to nearly 500, according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers.
The numbers are increasing locally, too, with 23 reported cases in Pasco last year and six in Hernando. Health officials say many people don't report adverse effects or tell emergency room staffers that they smoked the products, though, so the numbers could be much higher.
The synthetic compounds bind and "hijack" brain receptors involved in an array of critical body functions, such as memory, motor control and decision making, said Marilyn A. Huestis, chemistry and drug metabolism chief at the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Some of the compounds are many times stronger than THC, and the negative effects appear to be greater, too, Huestis said. Because products are manufactured without regulation, they could contain toxic contaminants.
The longtime physical and psychological effects are unclear. As a researcher, Huestis gives drugs to volunteers to study their effects on the body. She won't do the same with these products — and the Food and Drug Administration wouldn't let her if she wanted to — because of how little is known about them, she said.
That means active users are, in effect, making themselves lab rats.
"They're experimenting on themselves with very dangerous chemicals," Huestis said.
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One day in January, someone tipped off administrators at Powell Middle School in Spring Hill that a student had some fake pot in his bookbag.
The boy admitted he smoked it, said Cameron, the Hernando sheriff's sergeant who also supervises school resource officers.
"He said it helps him relax," Cameron said.
Last week, a Hernando High student was caught with fake pot he said he bought at a downtown Brooksville gas station. As of last week, there had been seven or eight synthetic marijuana cases this school year in Hernando County, said Ricardo Jaquez, the district's lead substance abuse educator.
The products are not currently on the list of banned substances in the Hernando student code of conduct, but likely will be by next school year, Jaquez said. Students found in possession of the products are interviewed and typically referred for drug counseling.
The Pasco school district considers fake pot banned "look-alike substances," a spokeswoman said.
Anti-drug activists applauded the effort to educate retailers.
"If they start feeling some pressure about this product, they might figure it's just not worth it," said Sandra Marrero, vice president of the Hernando County Community Anti-Drug Coalition. "We already have enough problems with the drugs we have on the street."
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Last week, Susan Casiglia happened to walk into a Brooksville BP station not far from her apartment to find Deputy Dowdell talking to the woman behind the counter.
Flanking the woman were three display cases full of fake pot products: Cloud 9, Mad Hatter, Scooby Snax.
Most or all of it will probably be illegal soon, Dowdell told her. The woman, who turned out to be the owner and declined to give her name to a Times reporter, told Dowdell she was a single mom who worked hard to provide for her family, so she didn't want any trouble.
As Casiglia waited in line, the owner started to stuff the packets and jars into a plastic bag. A few minutes later, the display cases sat empty.
"Thank God," Casiglia said.
Times news researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or [email protected]