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DEA targets synthetic marijuana

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla., April 16 (UPI) -- The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration says it's making a concerted effort to go after those who sell synthetic marijuana, a continuously morphing drug.

A sign of the DEA's enforcement effort was the recent arrest of a South Florida man, the first in the state linked to alleged distribution of synthetic marijuana, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel reported.

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Synthetic marijuana is sold at gas stations, convenience stores and head shops in South Florida under names such as "K2," "Spice," "Mr. Nice Guy" and "Afterlife."

"I think [the arrest] sends a message: We are going to aggressively prosecute people who are in violation of the controlled-substances act," DEA spokesman Jeffrey Scott said.

Health risks prompted the DEA to make illegal some of the chemicals in synthetic marijuana last year and the ban was extended in February another six months while the agency seeks a permanent ban.

But manufacturers keep changing the chemical composition of the synthetic drug so their products are still legal.

In the Florida case, Joel Howard Lester, 52, remained in Palm Beach County Jail. He faces up to five years in prison if convicted.

In January, a Jupiter, Fla., police detective assigned to a DEA task force in West Palm Beach began an investigation into an alleged synthetic marijuana distributor.

Authorities say an informant who posed as a store owner who wanted to sell synthetic marijuana met with Lester Jan. 23 in West Palm Beach and bought $300 worth of the substances -- in 50, 1-gram packages of "Mr. Nice Guy," "Mary" and "Afterlife."

The DEA said it had the substances tested and the chemicals were "analogues" of a compound on a list of banned substances, and Lester was arrested March 30 and charged with possession with intent to distribute an analogue of a controlled substance.

Use of the synthetic marijuana has increased markedly since 2009 when it began appearing widely and emergency room visits and reports to poison control centers involving it have risen sharply. The synthetic marijuana is said to produce a marijuana-like high but also has been linked to aggression, increased heart rate, disorientation, panic attacks and hallucinations, the Sun-Sentinel said.

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