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On the morning of June 26, 2013, before heading to work at a bingo hall in Amarillo, Texas, Roni Cannon had a premonition. When her son Jesse High, 18, had started smoking something he called K2 about 12 months before, Cannon thought it was just a strong tobacco he reacted badly to. She disapproved, but when she asked him what it was, he said it was no big deal. “This is like a legal marijuana,” he told her.

Combatting the spread of dangerous synthetic drugs will require new approaches to law enforcement. Accepting that it has become impossible to draft laws that list every possible illegal drug, many states have adopted their own versions of federal laws that make it unlawful to sell a drug that is substantially similar chemically to a substance on the banned list. In theory, this allows prosecution over synthetics that have not been specifically identified. In practice, it’s difficult: these cases require expert testimony from chemists who argue in court over a drug’s chemical structure–a challenge for juries.
Absent criminal charges, Roni Cannon decided in October to pursue her lawsuit against Planet X. “These merchants know exactly what these people are doing with this stuff,” Cannon told me. “I’m not trying to portray my son as being an angel or that he was this super kid with a promising future,” she says. “My son had his problems. He dropped out of school. We had that rocky relationship. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that my son deserved to die this way.”

Understanding exactly what happened to Jesse beyond that is complicated. The autopsy report says Jesse exhibited pulmonary and cerebral edema–excess fluid in the lungs and the brain. The report underscores the challenge of trying to ascertain exactly what happens with presumed victims of synthetics: it states that lab tests were negative for “commonly available” cannabinoids but notes that tests were not yet available for “many additional” cannabinoids that are believed to be sold under the name K2.
Medical experts caution that a single dose of a synthetic cannabinoid can be hazardous because of the crude way in which producers spray the chemicals onto inert plant material that is then smoked. If the cannabinoid is sprayed unevenly, it can create hot spots where the concentration of the chemical is dangerously high. But because there is so little medical research on these novel compounds, their precise effect is not well understood.
About two hours after the 911 call, two police officers arrived at the bingo hall and told Roni Cannon that her son was dead. The cause of death was “probable complications of synthetic cannabinoid ingestion,” according to the official autopsy report by Dr. Thomas R. Parsons for Potter County.
Local cops say they struggle with how to handle stores in their communities that are selling synthetics. “[If] we knew it was illegal for sure and we could go in and seize everything they have, we would,” says Randy Mincher, an Amarillo police department undercover narcotics officer.
The most complicated drug problem in the world right now isn’t meth or cocaine or the heroin that’s been making a comeback and killed actor Philip Seymour Hoffman. It is synthetic drugs, also known as legal highs or designer drugs. Five years ago, these substances were virtually unheard of. Now, say drug monitors and law-enforcement officials, they are spreading to eager buyers everywhere at an unprecedented speed. “It is widespread in scope. It is in every state,” says Joseph Rannazzisi, head of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration group responsible for synthetics. “I don’t recall any other drug issue where we had the same problem.”

“Your kids are being experimented on,” says Rannazzisi, the DEA point person on synthetics who heads the Office of Diversion Control. “They cause physical harm, mental harm and death.”

The Rise of Fake Pot Sold openly in stores, popular with kids and unpredictably dangerous, synthetic pot is just around the corner On the morning of June 26, 2013, before heading to work at a