Synthetic drugs once touted as legal alternatives to marijuana took a foothold among the nation's high schools, with one in nine seniors surveyed last spring saying they had used so-called synthetic pot within the previous 12 months.
The survey, which will be released this morning by the National Institutes of Health, is believed to be the first nation-wide government survey to study the popularity of synthetic substances often marketed as "herbal incense" and under such brands as "Spice" and "K2."
Synthetic marijuana was the second-most frequently used illegal drug behind natural marijuana, which 36.4 percent of seniors reported using in the same time period.
White House drug czar R. Gil Kerlikowske said in a prepared statement that the survey findings on synthetic marijuana are "shocking."
"Make no mistake. These drugs are dangerous and can cause serious harm," said Kerlikowske, director of National Drug Control Policy.
The survey showed alcohol and cigarette use at 37-year low among teens. By contrast, daily marijuana use is at a 30-year peak among high school seniors, according to the annual "Monitoring the Future" survey.
"One in every 15 high school seniors today is smoking pot on a daily or near daily basis," said Lloyd Johnston, the principal investigator of the study for the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Herbal incense was among the first in a wave of new designer synthetic drugs to hit the market in the United States in recent years. Later, cocaine-like stimulants labeled as "bath salts" became popular, as well as psychedelic "research chemicals."
U.S. Poison Control Centers took just 24 calls about synthetic marijuana in January 2010, and the numbers rose steadily since then. In the first 10 months of 2011, the total number of calls reached 5,741, almost double last year's 12-month total of 2,915.
Efforts to ban the substances have been evolving. In March, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) temporarily banned five chemicals found in synthetic marijuana. At least 40 states have passed laws or implemented rules banning some chemicals related to synthetic marijuana, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The U.S. House passed a bill last week.
Still, there's a fear that manufacturers will simply continue to use other chemicals that produce similar results. Some stores, as well as many online retailers, still sell the products.
Pam Louwagie • 612-673-7102