Washington (AFP) - It goes by many names -- K2, Spice, Bizarro, Scooby Snax, Kryp2nite and Stoopid, to name but a few -- and it's setting off alarm bells across the United States.
Synthetic marijuana is being cited by police and public health officials for a dramatic surge in potentially lethal overdoses and drug-related offenses nationwide.
Imported primarily from China, it's an inexpensive chameleon substance, its synthesized chemical ingredients forever being tweaked by underground labs keeping one step ahead of law enforcement.
"We're seeing it pop up all around the country," acting Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) chief Chuck Rosenberg told NPR public radio this week.
"The dosage amounts vary. The chemicals vary. You and I could buy and use the same packet... and have vastly different reactions to it."
So far this year, poison control centers across the United States have taken more than 5,200 calls specific to "fake weed."
That's more than the 3,680 calls they got in all of last year and the 2,668 calls handled in 2013, the American Association of Poison Control Centers says.
"Fake weed causes extreme anxiety, paranoia, panic attacks, alienation/disassociation, psychotic episodes and hallucinations," warns k2zombiedc.com, a city-run website aimed at Washington's youth.
"This behavior has been labeled 'the zombie effect,'" it says.
- Addictive and lethal -
Synthetic marijuana may look like pot to the naked eye, but its addictive and potentially lethal high derives from chemical compounds designed to mimic THC, the active ingredient in real marijuana.
Those chemicals are sprayed onto grass-like herbs that are then stuffed into condom-style packets featuring amateur-looking cartoonish graphics.
"Not for human consumption," some packages claim.
Compared to genuine pot, synthesized marijuana can be "up to 100 times as potent as THC" at stimulating brain receptors, said Marilyn Huestis, senior investigator at the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
It is sometimes sold under the counter at corner stores, gas stations and head shops, but it can easily be bought online with a credit card after a simple Google search.
"I love it," said a customer's glowing review of Bizarro on one website. "I'd give it a 9/10. Very potent product and shipping was really fast."
In a 2012 survey by the University of Michigan, synthetic marijuana was the second most consumed drug among US high school seniors after marijuana.
"It's a monstrous problem," Huestis told AFP.
Some versions of synthetic marijuana have been listed as a Schedule One drug on par with heroin, but the multitude of versions means they cannot all be deemed analogs of real pot and thus be found illegal.
"Everybody assumes that it's one drug, just like there is one cocaine or one methamphetamine," said Mark Ryan, director of the Louisiana Poison Center.
"We know that there are more than 300 different unique drugs that are out there right now," he told AFP in a telephone interview.
- Hard to identify -
What's more, it is near impossible to identify synthetic marijuana using standard drug screening tests -- a big headache for law enforcement.
"We've made about 65 arrests in a couple of months now of people that are selling this stuff and buying this stuff on the street," Washington police chief Cathy Lanier told a community meeting this week.
"And we can't prosecute any of them."
The US capital is among the hardest-hit American cities.
Early this month, police shot and wounded a knife-wielding 22-year-old woman who, according to her mother, had been taking a mix of fake pot and PCP.
In June, at least seven people were rushed to the hospital after overdosing on synthetic marijuana outside Washington's biggest homeless shelter.
New York state meanwhile has reported more than 1,900 visits to hospital emergency wards between April and June attributable to the substance.
For those struggling with addiction, websites like SpiceAddictionSupport.org provide a safe place for sharing experiences in anonymity.
"All I cared about at any given time was smoking Spice," wrote one recovering addict writing under the name Taylor.
"The physical withdrawal symptoms were severe... I was so depersonalized to the world around me that I would just lay there high, watching my life as if it were through the eyes of a moviegoer."