While New York City police are trying to get a handle on the new scourge of synthetic marijuana, federal drug enforcement agents have determined that much of the money made by dealers is being funneled to Middle Eastern countries such as Syria and Jordan, according to officials.
The investigators made the discovery during a two-year nationwide offensive against the drug, which is produced from chemicals made in China and used here to treat herbal products or make liquids.
There is no hard evidence the money made is going to terrorist groups, said a federal agent familiar with the investigations.
Synthetic marijuana is generally sold in the city in smokeshops and bodegas owned by people of Middle Eastern ancestry, which explains why some of the profits are sent overseas, investigators said.
"Many of these investigations continued to uncover the massive flow of drug-related proceeds to countries in the Middle East, including Yemen, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, as well as other countries," the federal Drug Enforcement Administration said in a bulletin last year announcing scores of arrests for trafficking in synthetic drugs, including fake marijuana.
Last week, NYPD Commissioner William Bratton put an additional spotlight on the dangers of synthetic marijuana, or what he called "weaponized marijuana," which can cause "excited delirium syndrome" manifested by extremely aggressive or violent behavior, as well as life-threatening conditions such as a rapid heartbeat.
The DEA said the substance, because of its appeal to young adults and children, is a growing public health issue because the chemical effects on the body, unlike real pot, are unpredictable.
The synthetic cannabinoid is sold in the city as "K2," "AK47," "Black Voodoo," "Spice" and "Mr. Nice Guy." Bratton said homeless people are showing up as big users, and hospital emergency room visits attributed to the synthetic pot run as high as 100 a week.
Federal law allows the DEA to go after those who traffic in designer drugs such as synthetic marijuana, as well as substances considered analogues of controlled substances. The added problem now is that the chemicals have changed in the past three or four years so that they are far removed from natural marijuana and hence very dangerous, DEA spokesman Eduardo Chavez said.
NYPD Assistant Deputy Commissioner Robert F. Messner said that right now, mere possession of synthetic marijuana is not a crime under New York's penal law. However, police can issue summonses to sellers under the public health and sanitation law. Since some of the packets are deceptively labeled as not fit for human consumption -- while in fact they are sold for that purpose -- the sellers can be prosecuted under state agriculture and marketing laws, he noted.
City officials hope that the State Legislature will amend New York's penal law to cover synthetic marijuana. Recent crackdowns in Manhattan and Brooklyn have made bodega owners more cautious about sales, said police. But cops say they are facing a long battle.
"I don't think it is going away because people are making too much money," one NYPD official said.