HOUSTON - It's deadly, cheap and easy to find at convenience stores across Houston but synthetic marijuana, sold in tiny packets and marketed with creative names, is now illegal in the city.
It started as a traffic stop for failing to use a turn signal but inside the car, Harris County sheriff's deputies stumbled across what they identified as synthetic marijuana.
The shiny packet was likely cannabinoid, containing man-made chemicals when combined with plant material, mimics THC, marijuana's active ingredient.
"I don't consider it a drug but I guess it is a drug, but I wouldn't consider it a drug, but it's a drug," said Robert Dean.
Deputies eventually released a 29-year-old and another man in the car, because at the time of the traffic stop, it wasn't illegal to use or possess synthetic marijuana.
That changed on Oct. 8 when council passed a sweeping ban on these so-called designer drugs. They're often labeled "not for human consumption" and marketed as "potpourri" or "Kush."
The Drug Enforcement Agency has labeled Houston a key market and source of Kush -- a challenge for local law enforcement.
"First, we have to identify these chemicals, then we have to determine whether or not that's a chemical substance that is actually regulated or controlled," said James Miller, criminal lab manager at the Houston Forensic Sciences Center.
Synthetic drugs are tested at the Houston Forensic Science Center, where experts work to identify ingredients. Sometimes, the manufacturers include a mix of legal and illegal substances.
"So that they're staying ahead of the control status or law enforcement when it comes to making these substances illegal," Miller said.
With catchy names like Bling Bling Monkey and cartoon figures, these drugs don't exactly appear illegal or dangerous.
"I'm afraid that when people look at that, it's something that's appealing, it's appetizing to them, surely they don't think, 'This is something harmful,'" Miller said.
But now there are more than just potential consequences to your health. Anyone caught selling or using synthetic marijuana in Houston faces arrest and a fine of up to $2,000 per packet of drugs.
The Houston Forensic Science Center Lab has already identified twelve different chemical components used in synthetic marijuana just this year and officials with U.S. Customs & Border Patrol said they discover an average of one new compound make synthetic marijuana every week.
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