"Dude," they told him, "blink if you're alive."
Angelica Romero, 16, and six other teenagers had gathered at a lake near Westfield Citrus Park mall this past spring and gotten "really, really high."
One of her friends sat on the grass, "just chilling," Romero said. "And then he just laid back and after a while, he was moving his hands in the air, and he was like, 'I need water! I'm thirsty! I can't see' "
Oxycodone didn't trigger the teen's frenzy, and it wasn't crack or any other drug often in the news. Rather, it was a synthetic form of marijuana so new that urinalyses don't detect it.
Even as prescription drug abuse has become the focus in Tampa Bay, convenience stores legally peddle packages of "incense" called K2, Spice, Red Magic, Red Dragon, Diesel, Serenity and Blueberry Meditation.
The customers are teenagers, members of the military, people on probation and others subject to drug tests.
"This is being marketed to police, other groups," said Marilyn A. Huestis, chemistry and drug metabolism chief at the National Institute on Drug Abuse. "You have these synthetic compounds that are up to 100 fold more potent than THC," the active ingredient in marijuana.
And yet, it's as easy to buy as Mountain Dew and Skittles.
• • •
Synthetic marijuana is not federally controlled, though the Drug Enforcement Administration is working to change that. Thirteen states have banned it, along with 12 European countries.
The labels clearly warn consumers that the products are "for fragrance purposes only," not human consumption.
"I wasn't really worried about that fact," said Sienghamphone Ricky Phapaserth, 17, who last attended Northeast High in St. Petersburg. "The only thing I was worried about was how can something without THC get you high."
Health and drug-prevention officials say they have seen an alarming uptick in the number of emergency room visits. Patients have arrived with symptoms ranging from seizures and vomiting to extreme agitation and increased heart rates.
The American Association of Poison Control Centers logged just 14 calls about synthetic marijuana use in 2009. With three months left this year, the number has already surpassed 1,500.
• • •
At Operation PAR Academy for Behavioral Change, a St. Petersburg treatment facility where Romero and Phapaserth now live, 16 of the 28 residents say they have experimented with synthetic marijuana, supervisor Frankie Valle said. The youngest is 13.
The kids say they bought it at places like the Sunoco gas station on 54th Avenue N in St. Petersburg, Recked Smoke Shop on Waters Avenue in northwest Hillsborough County and the SuperAm on Seminole Boulevard in Largo.
It can also be ordered online.
"And what's really, really frightening," Huestis said, is "there's no control on their production whatsoever. There's no control on the amount that they're spraying on these herbal preparations. So people are experimenting with a drug that we have not even tested to even know what the effects are going to be."
Despite the unknowns, people smoke Spice and K2 from blunts, bowls and paintball guns. There's even a K2 fan page on Facebook with nearly 2,000 friends.
"Everybody was talking about it — this weed that doesn't show up on your drug test," said Phapaserth, who was on probation for burglary and grand theft and subject to drug tests when an older friend offered him synthetic marijuana. "I had to try it out for myself."
• • •
At the 7 Stars Food Market on Main Street in Safety Harbor, less than half a mile from an elementary school, a 3-gram package of K2 Watermelon rings up for $15. The teens at Operation PAR say that's about what they pay for pot on the street.
K2 is packaged in plastic bags and often found at the checkout counter.
It doesn't look like real weed.
"It kind of looks like a mixture of hair and what's that stuff they put on pizza?" Phapaserth asked. "Oregano."
Smell like real weed.
"If you haze up a room," said 15-year-old Holly Stratton, "it smells like something died or was caught on fire in a horrible way."
Or taste like real weed.
"It's a bitterish taste," Phapaserth said. "It hits your throat real hard, worse than a cigarette."
Taylor Ibarra, 17, of Largo tried Red Dragon for the first time this year.
The former Largo and Mavericks High student said he learned from a friend in the Army that he could buy synthetic marijuana at local gas stations. "It's really popular in the military," he said. "Second time I did it, (another) friend was in the Marines."
A Corps-wide crackdown is imminent and at least nine Army commanders across the country have banned its use on their bases.
The buzz doesn't last as long as authentic marijuana, Ibarra said, but "it gets you way higher than you ever want to, a lot higher than a normal blunt of weed."
"I was just like all flinchy and shaky and like looking around and stuff. I couldn't stop moving. I thought everybody was staring at me. I thought I was like the center of attention and everything. My eyes got really red. I didn't really get hungry like that much, but I felt burnt out. I was tired."
Phapaserth, Romero and Stratton told similar tales.
Since June 21, six people have been admitted to hospitals in Pinellas, Hernando, Pasco, Hillsborough and Citrus counties, according to the Florida Department of Health's Bureau of Environmental Public Health Medicine.
All but one was younger than 18.
• • •
The compound that mimics the effects of marijuana is known as JWH-018. A Clemson University undergraduate student in Dr. John W. Huffman's laboratory developed it in the summer of 1995 for research purposes, Huffman wrote in a brief e-mail to the St. Petersburg Times.
Marijuana is sometimes used to treat nausea and glaucoma, and JWH-018 was created to further that research.
"It is simply one of many compounds synthesized by my group and others for the purpose of investigating the relationship between chemical structure and biological activity," he wrote. "It should absolutely not be used as a recreational drug."
So how did it get from a university lab in South Carolina to bay area convenience stores? Huffman said the compound was first disclosed in a research paper in 1998.
He suspects somebody re-created the chemical after that.
Huestis, of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, said there is "good evidence that a lot of these products are being manufactured in China."
From China, the products make their way to distributors like Jeff Ruben, the general manager of A&J Distributing in Pinellas Park. He said his company was the first to offer synthetic marijuana to convenience stores in the bay area.
"One of my reps that I've known called us and said, 'You got a chance to make some money,' " Ruben said. "We try and only handle stuff that we know who the vendor is because this stuff can be made at any place. We've taken the high road and stayed with the real thing."
He said synthetic marijuana saved the summer for local convenience stores.
"I'm doing an extra $200,000 gross per year in just this product," said Randy Heine, who sells K2 from his Rockin Cards & Gifts store in Pinellas Park.
• • •
State Sen. Stephen Wise, R-Jacksonville, had not heard of K2 as recently as July. "I didn't know if it was some kind of cream," he said. Now he's the main architect behind a bill that would ban the sale of synthetic marijuana. He hopes to introduce it in the next legislative session.
"If it has the same effect or worse effect than marijuana," Wise said, "I don't think (children) need to have access to it."
He's not the only official working to get the synthetic marijuana problem under control.
The head of the Florida Office of Drug Control wants Attorney General Bill McCollum to add synthetic marijuana to the state's list of illegal drugs.
Like Wise, Heine said that children should not have access to synthetic marijuana. In fact, a sign at his store says you must be 21 to buy. But he doesn't support an outright ban. Regulate fake pot, he said, but don't ban it.
"It's raising $15,000 in extra state sales tax a year," Heine said. "I'm just one store. Multiply this by this whole state. There are 5,000 stores or more that are doing $100,000 more in business a year because of this product and they're paying taxes, and you'll lose all of that."
• • •
Whether a ban would be effective is up for debate. In other states, manufacturers have circumvented the law by making slight changes in the formula. K3, for instance, replaced K2.
Romero, the former Jefferson High student who witnessed her friend's outburst at the lake, thinks a ban on K2 would be a waste of time.
"If you don't have one thing," she said, "you're going to have another. There's always going to be something coming up, something that people are going to want to do."
Said Ibarra: "We're teenagers. We think about today, having a blast today. We're not worried about tomorrow. Today, let's get high."
Rodney Thrash can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4167.