A CBC News hidden-camera investigation has found that a new, potentially dangerous substance being marketed as synthetic marijuana is now being sold openly in some Vancouver-area shops.

A similar substance has been blamed for death and brain damage in the U.S. In Canada it is sold in mass-produced foil packages under names like K2 and Spice.

The price list, plainly posted on the counter of one Vancouver head shop on Granville Street, shows the synthetic pot goes for $29.99 for three grams.

The owner, who was behind the counter, is seen in concealed-camera footage telling a customer that smoking the substance works like marijuana.

"Three puffs makes you high," the owner said.

CBC News also purchased K2 at a store in Burnaby, B.C., as part of the investigation.

Selling compounds that produce a pharmacological effect similar to marijuana is illegal in Canada.

Manufacturers declare in printed instructions on the packaging that the substances are "aromatherapy incense mix" or "herbal blends," and are "not for human consumption."

'Same as marijuana'

But users are not discouraged from smoking it.

When asked if it’s dangerous to use, the owner in the Granville Street store said it wasn’t.

"Oh no, this is the same as marijuana," he said.

'From a health point of view, it’s extremely dangerous.'—Medical specialist Paul Daeninck

Varieties of K2 seized in the U.S. and analyzed showed it was actually dried plant material laced with synthetic chemicals that mimic natural substances called cannabinoids, such as tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC — the active ingredient in marijuana.

But the potency of synthetic marijuana can be many times greater, judging from reported incidents in the U.S., where it has been blamed for psychotic episodes among young users, kidney damage, seizures and death.

Expert issues warning

Dr. Paul Daeninck, a Winnipeg oncologist, specializes in cannabinoids for medical purposes and said the synthetic variety should not be consumed.

"From a health point of view, it’s extremely dangerous, incredibly dangerous to be playing with any of this stuff," Daeninck told CBC News.

The proprietor of the Granville Street shop refused an interview request from CBC News.

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Manufacturers print on the package that K2 is not for human consumption, but some retailers might suggest otherwise. (CBC)

At one Vancouver high school, many students CBC News spoke to said they had not heard of K2, but some said they knew other youths who were using it.

Police raided shops selling synthetic pot in Calgary two years ago. Police in Winnipeg and in Windsor told CBC News that they are looking into the matter. Vancouver police say they have not received any complaints about it.

CBC News is taking steps to securely destroy the packages it purchased during this investigation.

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this story stated that police had raided shops in Winnipeg that were selling synthetic pot. Police in Winnipeg clarified that they had planned raids, and may be planning more.
    Feb 26, 2013 12:16 AM PT
With files from the CBC's Eric Rankin