N.L. police say synthetic weed illegal

Police in Newfoundland and Labrador agree that synthetic marijuana is illegal, and if there was suspicion of it being sold over the counter in local stores, they would launch an investigation.

Police in Newfoundland say they would investigate, test samples of suspicious product

Herbal incense like this shown is now available at stores in Mount Pearl and St. John's. (CBC)

Police in Newfoundland and Labrador agree that synthetic marijuana is illegal, and if there was suspicion of it being sold over the counter in local stores, they would launch an investigation.

CBC News bought herbal incense from two local stores — Mary Janes Smoke Shop in downtown St. John's and The Chad Smoke Shop 420 in Mount Pearl.

The product was sold under brand names like Fusion Warped, Fusion Fission, Zap'r, and Kick Ass White Rabbit.

The Zap'r herbal incense blend has this label on the back of the package. (CBC)

The foil packaging clearly states the product is not meant for human consumption.

The vast majority of U.S. states have tried to ban similar products sold as marijuana substitutes.

But the herbal incense — which may be sprayed with a synthetic version of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the active chemical in marijuana — seems to exist in a regulatory grey area in Canada.

A CBC News investigation has sparked police forces across the country to have a look at the product.

Unfamiliar with synthetic weed

Royal Newfoundland Constabulary Const. Garry Crocker said he wasn't very familiar with synthetic weed.

"I haven't had any experience with it, and our drug section, as far as I know, haven't seized any," he said.

Crocker, the RNC’s drug awareness co-ordinator, said it is covered under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act (CDSA).

Const. Garry Crocker is the drug awareness co-ordinator with the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary. (CBC)

"It is illegal to buy it, sell it, and produce it," he said. 

He said stores selling it would be investigated, and have their product sent to a laboratory for testing.

"It is man-made, and the chemicals in it are unknown until they are tested with the lab," he said.

But not all synthetic cannabinoids are declared as being banned substances, putting them in a legal grey area.

Health Canada, however, considers anything a controlled substance if it gives the same effect as marijuana.

RCMP Sgt. Steve Conohan said it can be a difficult issue to address.

"There are some that are just what they say — there are some that are just potpourri," said Conohan, the RCMP's co-ordinator of drugs and organized crime awareness.

"Because of the varying number of names and whatnot that they put on them, sometimes it's difficult to determine whether or not they have synthetic cannabinoids in them."

Sgt. Steve Conohan is the RCMP's co-ordinator of drugs and organized crime awareness. (CBC)

Conohan noted that there are some 140 different varieties of synthetic cannabinoids.

While such chemicals have been prevalent in North America for several years, Conohan said they haven't had much of an impact in Newfoundland and Labrador.

But Conohan said if the RCMP did receive any information on these products being available, "it would definitely warrant some checking into if it was happening in RCMP jurisdiction."

The federal force covers most of the province, except for the northeast Avalon, Corner Brook and western Labrador regions.

"If we received information, then we would have to do a thorough investigation to determine if in fact it were synthetic cannabinoids that were being sold," Conohan said.

Adverse health effects

Both officers agreed such drugs can be dangerous.

Conohan said they can produce adverse health effects such as elevated heart rates, paranoia, vomiting, hallucinations, and even renal failure.

Crocker said it's also worrisome because people aren't aware of what they're smoking.

"It's man-made, and you don't know what you're taking, what chemicals are in it, what's being used, and the effects that it's going to have on you," he said.

The manager at Mary Janes Smoke Shop told CBC News the store only sells the herbal incense for "a relaxing aroma in your home," and not for any kind of human consumption.

The owner of The Chad Smoke Shop 420 declined to comment.

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

'Putting your life at risk'

Paul Daeninck is an oncologist and palliative care physician at St. Boniface Hospital for CancerCare Manitoba. One of his interests is the use of cannabinoids in the management of symptoms for cancer patients.

He is warning the public to stay away from synthetic weed products.

Daeninck said synthetic cannabinoids were primarily developed for scientific research purposes, and carry a much stronger concentration than the levels of THC found in marijuana cigarettes.

Winnipeg oncologist Paul Daeninck is warning people to stay away from synthetic cannabinoids. (CBC)

He says it can be 50 to hundreds of times more potent.

"They have not gone through any sort of toxicology, they haven't gone through any sort of testing to look at human consumption," Daeninck said.

"From a health point of view, it's extremely dangerous, incredibly dangerous to be playing with any of this stuff."

Daeninck said people who use synthetic weed may experience psychosis, and there have even been documented cases of people committing suicide.

"These people literally are putting their life at risk by taking this stuff," he said.

Research in the United States suggests that the 12- to 17-year-old demographic are the primary users of these products.

As a parent, Daeninck said he's concerned about synthetic weed being marketed to kids.

"I think it's really important to talk to your children about this sort of thing, to warn them that although it may look to be [in a] pretty [foil package]... it's an incredibly dangerous product," he said.