New Jersey Attorney General Jeffrey S. Chiesa on Wednesday announced a statewide ban on all forms of synthetic marijuana, the so-called designer drug that mimics the effects of marijuana.
The concoction, also known as K2 and Spice, is the third most commonly abused drug by high school seniors, behind marijuana and prescription drugs, according to a 2011 study funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Side effects include violent seizures, dangerously elevated heart rates, and hallucinations, according to the institute and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
New Jersey's ban - in an emergency order pending legislative action - prohibits the manufacture, distribution, and sale of any of the hundreds of chemical combinations that mirror marijuana's effect, and is more sweeping than previous efforts.
The drug will now be considered a controlled dangerous substance, like cocaine and heroin. Violators could face three to five years in prison and a fine of up to $25,000, officials said.
Under state law, officials can reclassify and restrict the availability of chemicals that have a high potential for abuse and no accepted medical use.
Chiesa said authorities wanted to ban all possible variants of the drug to prevent manufacturers and dealers from sidestepping the law by concocting products that create similar effects but are not illegal.
"Today, we are ending this dangerous game played by drug dealers. We are making it unambiguously clear that if a synthetic chemical is being sold because it mimics the effects of marijuana, the dealer is committing a crime," Chiesa said in a news release.
In April, New Jersey adopted a temporary federal ban on five variants of the drug, and state legislation to ban three variants of the drug is pending. Federal legislation is also pending.
In November in Cherry Hill, two men were arrested after selling marijuana, cocaine, and synthetic marijuana at a gas station, police said.
Clinical pharmacist Bruce Ruck, director of drug information and professional education at the New Jersey Poison Information and Education System, a poison control center, called the ban a step in the right direction.
Ruck said there were no standards or regulations to control what chemicals are mixed to create the drug.
"The user doesn't know what they're getting because the seller doesn't know what they're selling," Ruck said. "The danger is even higher because you could be smoking something highly toxic and not know it."
Chris Goldstein, a board member of the Philadelphia chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said that use of synthetic marijuana was a "disturbing trend" but that attempts to ban it were misguided.
He said synthetic marijuana would still be available online and that politicians were drawing more attention to it.
"The politicians end up being the biggest billboards selling this in their attempt to ban it," he said.
The ban follows a similar move in April on "bath salts," also a designer drug that is a mix of dangerous chemicals and that produces a stimulating but psychotic high. In August, Gov. Christie signed a bill making bath salts illegal.
Last summer, Gov. Corbett also signed a bill banning the sale and use of bath salts in Pennsylvania. The law also bars designer drugs such as synthetic marijuana.
Synthetic marijuana has been outlawed in 39 states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The American Association of Poison Control Centers reported a spike in calls to poison centers involving synthetic marijuana - from 2,906 in 2010 to 6,959 in 2011.
New Jersey's poison control center received 18 such calls in 2010 and 146 in 2011. The calls came mostly from medical professionals treating those admitted to hospitals, Ruck said.
Nationwide, poison control centers received reports of five deaths associated with synthetic marijuana in 2010, the most recent year for which comprehensive data are available.
In October, a 14-year-old Pennsylvania boy reportedly died after suffering lung damage from smoking synthetic marijuana from a Pez candy dispenser, Chiesa said. The boy died following an infection after a double lung transplant.