AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
It's an illegal drug that's been blamed for thousands of emergency room visits and even some deaths around the country, but local law enforcement has found it difficult to clamp down the spread of the synthetic drug called spice. Today, the federal government acted. From New York City, NPR's Hansi Lo Wang reports.
HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: A federal grand jury has charged 10 men in New York for taking part in a scheme to make and deal more than a quarter million packets of the synthetic drug. They're estimated to be worth at least $30 million on the street. Spice is also known as K2 or synthetic marijuana. But U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara says don't be fooled.
PREET BHARARA: This stuff is not marijuana. It is not natural, and it is not harmless in any sense of the word.
WANG: Bharara says nationwide, phone calls to poison control centers about the drug in the first five months of this year have more than doubled compared to last year. In New York, the defendants allegedly imported illegal powdered chemicals from China to create a liquid mixture that was sprayed on dried plants like tea leaves. They're packaged in packets often sold at bodegas and other convenient stores for as little as $5.
BHARARA: No one really knows the precise effect of any particular batch, so smoking it becomes a dangerous game of Russian roulette that too many people in our city are playing.
COMMISSIONER BILL BRATTON: We cannot tolerate the poisoning of our young people, the poisoning of some of our most helpless, the homeless.
WANG: New York Police Department Commissioner Bill Bratton says the drug has also put police in danger when they encounter users who are violent and hallucinating. All 50 states and the federal government have issued bans on this drug. But in New York City, Bratton says local enforcement is limited.
BRATTON: There are not currently any city or state laws - criminal laws that would allow a police officer to make an arrest for possession.
WANG: But there are health regulations that outlaw selling the drug, so New York officials have issued health department violations to deter retailers. Still, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara says the federal government plans to step up its efforts to combat what he calls a public health crisis. Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.