ATLANTIC CITY - Police swept through the city's Boardwalk shops on Memorial Day, seizing from one what authorities say is a dangerous class of synthetic drugs. But apparently they missed a few packages.
"We had a few pieces left," Moon Traders employee Habiba Chaudhry said Thursday of an imitation marijuana product. "We're not selling it anymore."
Just minutes earlier, however, Chaudhry had charged $20 for 3 grams of the "Mango Tango" flavored herb.
"People keep asking for it," she said. "I don't know what they use it for."
Experts say youths are using the fake marijuana to get high, with dangerous and sometimes deadly results.
The new drugs - substances such as the fake marijuana that also is called K3, along with powders that bear harmless names such as "bath salt" - have caused federal and state authorities to crack down on their use. While many people may think the imitations are legal forms of marijuana and cocaine, that is no longer the case.
In March, a federal order banned the synthetic cannabinoids, which imitate the chemical structure of cannabis. The order specifically named five substances commonly found in the herbal mixture such as K3 and K2. The law took effect in New Jersey in April.
Last week, the state Division of Consumer Affairs collected about 1,400 packets with names such as "Bada Bing" and "Jersey Shore: Pineapple Pauly" during a sweep of the Wildwood Boardwalk. Because the owners at the 18 stores voluntarily turned over the merchandise - worth about $35,000 - they were not charged.
"As part of our Safe Summer 2011 campaign, we've been actively educating businesses about the illegality and danger of these drugs," DCA Director Tom Calcagni said. "We understand that some may not have known about these laws, which were not necessarily enforced with much gusto in the past. We sought voluntary compliance in surrendering them to us."
But it's not just the imitation drugs that concern Calcagni. In April, he used his power as director to issue an emergency order that added six chemicals found in so-called "designer drugs" to the controlled dangerous substance list.
Unlike cannabinoids - which resemble pot or incense - these powders are sold as "bath salts" or "plant food." But the chemicals do not add bubbles to water or nutrients to soil. Instead, they are snorted, injected or smoked - sometimes with horrific outcomes.
State lawmakers recently introduced Pamela's Law in response to the March death of Pamela Schmidt, a 22-year-old Rutgers student. Her boyfriend, William J. Parisio, 22, of Cranford, Union County, is charged with murder and was reportedly high on "bath salts" when he attacked her.
Calcagni had not heard of the drugs when he first took the DCA helm 13 months ago. But he did know he had the power to add to the CDS list. Then, in January, he read a Washington Post article on the rising prevalence of the drugs. The division began monitoring the New Jersey Poison Information and Education System to see if the problem had spread here.
"We were probably 2½ months into monitoring when we noticed a spike, particularly in the first two weeks of April," he said. "It went from zero to 21, with 10 occurring in the first two weeks of April. That spike in use, along with alarming reports from emergency rooms of the violence, extreme hallucinations and really intense physical and psychological effects, propelled us to action."
Atlantic City defense attorney Joseph Levin learned about the dangers of bath salts when he got involved in a domestic violence case in which the husband was addicted.
"He was having hallucinations, was extremely paranoid and was acting out on both the hallucinations and the paranoia," he said. "After numerous court sessions, we were able to get the individual into treatment to address his addiction and, ultimately, to save his marriage."
With the ban, Calcagni is looking to keep children from the drugs, which are not regulated and the makeup of which can vary even when packaged alike. For instance, one packet labeled "TranQuility" tested positive only for caffeine, while another packet tested positive for one of the chemicals Calcagni's order now bans.
"There's not a lot of quality control," he said.
But he also does not seem to be buying the excuses.
"Some retailers point to the ‘not for human consumption' labeling and express surprise that teenagers are using this stuff to get high," Calcagni said. "They are selling powdery substances - often to people not even old enough to buy cigarettes - in 500 milligram packets that are labeled Ecstasy and Rush for upwards of $60 a pack. To believe that these kids are sprinkling this in their bath water or buying it to feed their plants is absolutely ridiculous."
While local police have not seen a lot of bath salts, they have seen the imitation cannabis.
A Memorial Day sweep for counterfeit merchandise such as bags and belts being sold on Atlantic City's Boardwalk found the counterfeit drug at one store.
Police seized 207 packs of suspected cannabinoids at Moon Traders, Sgt. James Sarkos said. The State Police lab is still determining what they contain, but charges are possible against owner Usman Mohammed, 27, of Atlantic City.
Mohammed was not at the store Thursday when Chaudhry offered various flavors of K3 for sale. The packets were not easily visible entering the store, but a request for "incense" quickly led to Chaudhry asking, "You mean K2, K3?"
Licorice, blueberry and mango flavors were available, she said. Then she went into the back of a display case near the cash register.
"Twenty dollars," she said.
Sarkos did not want to comment on the continued sale at Moon Traders. He did say he checked with the lab, which had not yet been able to determine whether the banned substances were in the packets.
Calcagni said his office does not believe they need to be.
"If it is a substance that is being sold to imitate a CDS, or being sold because of the intoxicating characteristics of its fumes, it is illegal in New Jersey," he said. "It is a crime that could subject retailers to prison time."
And the DCA is not done looking for violators.
"This enforcement initiative continues," Calcagni said. "We're going to be going to other locations throughout the Jersey Shore as summer progresses."
Contact Lynda Cohen: