Herbal incense that has been linked to serious health risks when smoked is now available to buy at stores in Newfoundland.

One of those stores insists the product is only available for use as incense to provide a "relaxing aroma."

The incense, which is sold in silver foil packages, costs between $12 and $16 a gram.

The herbs may be sprayed with a synthetic version of the active chemical in marijuana. The packaging explicitly warns against human consumption.

The product seems to exist in a regulatory void in Canada, but the vast majority of American states have tried to ban it.

In the U.S., the use of synthetic marijuana has sent more than 10,000 people a year to hospital emergency rooms.

And in this country, Health Canada has issued warnings of the potential health effects of the product.

Available at 2 stores in St. John’s, Mount Pearl

CBC News sent a reporter equipped with a hidden camera into two local stores.

Both of them — Mary Janes Smoke Shop in downtown St. John’s and The Chad Smoke Shop 420 in Mount Pearl — sold herbal incense.

It is marketed under a variety of names.

Mary Janes sold the brands Fusion Warped, Fusion Purple Star, Kick Ass White Rabbit and Kick Ass Wonder to the reporter.

The Chad Smoke Shop 420 sold Fusion Atomic Green, Fusion Fission and Zap'r.

The words "not for human consumption" are written in fine print on the Fusion brand’s packages.

The Zap’r package outlines similar warnings: "We are not responsible or reliable [sic] for the misuse of this product. This product is potent and only meant to be burned for aromatherapy. This product is not recommended for smoking purposes."

Mary Janes manager Scott Randell points to such warnings on the packages to stress that the incense is not meant to be smoked.

"Everything we sell is for novelty or totally legal purposes," Randell told CBC News.

"We don't sell anything to get people high or that would harm their health. And it says right on the package of our Fusion and our Warped that it's not for human consumption."

Randell acknowledged that "there is stuff out there that people are smoking that's very powerful."

'Everything we sell is for novelty or totally legal purposes. We don't sell anything to get people high or that would harm their health.'—Mary Janes manager Scott Randell

But "we don't carry any of that at our store," he stressed.

"We don't sell it for any type of purpose besides an incense. It's a smelly incense for just a relaxing aroma in your home."

The CBC also bought the incense at The Chad Smoke Shop 420, located in a strip mall off busy Commonwealth Avenue in Mount Pearl.

An employee at The Chad Smoke Shop 420 said she would steer CBC News interview requests to the owner.

There was no response before deadline.

But when CBC’s undercover reporter asked the clerk in Mount Pearl whether she would suggest the use of a pipe, she said: "Yeah, probably, that’s how it’s recommended."

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

Legal grey area

In Canada, synthetic marijuana seems to exist in a legal grey area.

According to the RCMP’s Sgt. Ken Cornell, not all synthetic cannabinoids have been declared by Health Canada in schedule II of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act (CDSA).

'We are just becoming aware of this new drug and therefore are not in a position to speak to specifics about it.'—Eastern Health spokeswoman Zelda Burt

Although they may have a similar chemical structure and make-up, he notes, pharmacologically they react very differently in the body.

"This is likely where importers/users are trying to argue that their substances are unregulated," Cornell noted in an e-mailed statement. He works as national chemical diversion co-ordinator with the RCMP’s drug branch, federal and international operations.

"Also confusion may come into play with police departments or detachments that are aware of some of the typical synthetic cannabinoids being declared and others not."

Back in Newfoundland and Labrador, the province’s largest health authority declined interview requests.

"We are just becoming aware of this new drug and therefore are not in a position to speak to specifics about it," Eastern Health spokeswoman Zelda Burt wrote in an e-mailed statement.

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Kerri Collins of Choices for Youth says she has been told that synthetic marijuana is “readily accessible” in the St. John’s area. (CBC)

But a group in St. John’s that helps at-risk youth is concerned about its availability.

Kerri Collins, the co-coordinator of outreach and youth engagement with Choices for Youth, says the group has heard from young people that the product is "readily accessible" in the metro area.

"With any drug use … a lot of times young people aren’t really aware of what it is they’re using," she said.

"So we just encourage them to educate themselves on what they’re actually using, and what the potential side effects could be."

Significant side effects

Those side effects can be significant.

In the United States last year, according to the Drug Abuse Warning Network, 11,406 Americans went to the emergency room with side effects from synthetic marijuana in 2010.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control issued a warning after finding that 16 synthetic marijuana users in six states suffered acute kidney injuries last year.

"Public health practitioners, poison center staff members, and clinicians should be aware of the potential for renal or other unusual toxicities in users of [these] products," the CDC report noted. 

In this country, Health Canada says there are a number of symptoms associated with the use of products containing synthetic cannabinoids, including:

  • chest pain;
  • seizures;
  • hallucinations;
  • acute psychosis;
  • vomiting.

"Long-term effects can result from long-term, regular use of products containing cannabinoids and may persist long after drug use has stopped," Health Canada said in a statement to CBC News.

"Some of these effects can also occur even after using the drug only once."

Health Canada says those long-term effects may include cognitive changes and cognitive impairment, psychotic episodes, or schizophrenia in susceptible individuals.

‘I think we should know what’s in it’

CBC News spoke with a Conception Bay South teen, who smoked a brand called Happy Shaman herbs before the interview.

"I'm not a fan honestly," said the teen, who was granted anonymity.

"It doesn't look appealing. It doesn't smell appealing and it doesn't taste appealing and there wasn't much for the buzz at all really."

But he’s heard stories of others who had a different experience.

"I've heard horror stories [about] that stuff — I've never really heard anything good, honestly. Everybody is like they tried it and they either got really sick or got really paranoid and really f—ked up and they didn't like that at all."

He's telling people to avoid it.

"I think we should know what's in it really because they aren't willing to offer what it is in it. They are not even willing to say it is for [human]

consumption."