Synthetic drugs remain a major problem in Western Pa., despite laws banning them

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PITTSBURGH - They are banned in Pennsylvania, but Channel 11 News has found synthetic drugs still being sold in stores and winding up in the hands of teenagers.

This summer, President Barack Obama signed a law banning many of the chemicals used in bath salts, salvia and synthetic marijuana, also known as K2.

However, Channel 11's Courtney Brennan learned that manufacturers are tweaking the formula to try to get around the ban, and that has investigators and doctors worried.

"K2 was a gateway drug for me because once I started using it, I started using it all the time," a recovering addict told Brennan.

He said he first started smoking K2 because it didn't show up on his drug tests.

"My family really wanted me to stay clean but as an addict, my mentality is to get high," he said.

K2 looks like marijuana but it's actually herbs that are sprayed with chemicals to mimic the symptoms of the drug.

"Some of my patients refer to it as marijuana on steroids because it works on the same part of the brain that marijuana does but in a much more potent way," said Dr. Neil Capretto, the medical director of Gateway Rehabilitation.

Capretto said K2 first came on the scene five or six years ago, and according to a recent study, it's the second most popular drug of choice among high school-aged children.

Despite the ban and the new nationwide law, investigators said manufacturers try to get around the law by constantly tweaking the formula to come up with new compounds.

"There's no safety control. There's no quality control. One packet might have 100 times the amount of chemicals in it than the other packet does," said Pennsylvania State Trooper Josh Giran.

Giran leads many of the K2 raids in Western Pennsylvania, including one in Arnold this month that netted more than 5,000 bags of K2.

"Basically the hardest part for us is identifying the locations that are selling it," Giran said

K2 is cheap and it's marketed to kids with its bright packaging and branding.

Brandon Rice, 12, died in 2011 after smoking K2. The North Huntington youth was in the hospital for weeks and received a double lung transplant, but it didn't save him.

"People have faster heart rates. Some can have heart attacks, high blood pressure, strong anxiety, panic attacks, highly agitated," Capretto said of the possible side-effects.

Bath salts are synthetic cathinones that have similar effects to ecstasy or meth but can also pack a hallucinogenic effect like LSD.

According to the American Association of Poison Control Centers, the number of calls related to bath salt exposure received by poison control centers across the country increased by more than 20 times in 2011 alone, up from 304 in 2010 to 6,138.

For more information visit: http://www.whitehouse.gov/ondcp/ondcp-fact-sheets/synthetic-drugs-k2-spice-bath-salts