California law prohibits the sale of synthetic “designer” drugs. Such drugs include synthetic cannabis (marijuana) and synthetic stimulants.
Synthetic drugs are often sold in California under innocent sounding names such as “Bath Salts” or “Spice.”
The sale of synthetic drugs is a California misdemeanor under:
- California Health and Safety Code 11357.5 (synthetic cannabis),1 and
- California Health and Safety Code 11375.5 (synthetic stimulants).2
It is punishable by:
- up to six (6) months in county jail, and/or
- a fine of up to $1,000.3
We are a law firm whose attorneys include former cops and prosecutors. We now put that knowledge to work to help people accused of violating California drug laws.
To help you better understand California laws on synthetic drugs, our criminal defense attorneys discuss the following, below:
1. What do California laws on designer drugs prohibit?
Under California Health and Safety Code 11357.5 and 11375.5, it is illegal to:
- offer to sell or give, or
- possess for sale
Simple possession of these drugs for personal use is not prohibited by California law. However, possession is illegal under federal law (see below).
2. What is a synthetic cannabinoid compound or derivative?
Fake marijuana usually comes in small foil packets.
Sometimes the packages contain pictures of cartoon characters or other child-friendly images. Often they are labeled “not for human consumption.”8
The active ingredients in synthetic cannabinoids are made in a laboratory. They mimic the effects of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the main psychoactive ingredient in marijuana.9
To make fake marijuana, herbs, incense or other leafy materials are sprayed with liquid chemicals. These chemicals typically come as powders and are dissolved in solvents, such as acetone. Then they are sprayed onto the plant material.10
The chemicals used in the production of synthetic pot are often more potent than the THC occurring naturally in marijuana.11 They can also have more dangerous side effects, including:
- severe anxiety,
- convulsions, and
- suicidal thoughts.12
3. What is a synthetic stimulant compound or derivative?
Synthetic stimulants are designed to produce effects similar to:
- MDMA, and/or
They are frequently marketed as “bath salts,” “plant food,” “jewelry cleaner,” or something equally innocuous.14
Bath salts bear no relation to Epsom salt (magnesium sulfate), a mineral often added to bath water.
The chemicals found in bath salts are synthetic derivatives of cathinone.15 Cathinone is a central nervous system stimulant that occurs naturally in the khat plant. Two of the most common of these derivatives are Mephedrone and MDPV.16
Synthetic stimulants usually come in small, colorful foil or plastic packages. Often, they are marked “not for human consumption.”
Inside is a fine white, off-white, or slightly yellow-colored powder. Synthetic stimulants are sometimes found in tablet or capsule form, as well.17
Synthetic stimulants are usually ingested by sniffing or snorting. They can also be taken orally, smoked, or put into a solution and injected into the veins.18
Synthetic stimulants are “psychoactive” drugs. They can cause dramatic changes in:
- perception, and
Effects of synthetic stimulants may include:
- rapid heartbeat,
- increased activity,
- insomnia, and
Recent studies also suggest that synthetic stimulants are more addictive than methamphetamine.21
4. Possession of synthetic drugs under federal law
Synthetic cannabinoids and stimulants are illegal under the federal Controlled Substances Act (“CSA”), 21 United States Code 811.22
Unlike California law, the CSA makes mere possession of these drugs illegal.23 Possession for personal use is punished (if at all) by:
- a fine of not less than $1,000, and
- up to one (1) year in federal prison.24
However, the sale of synthetic drugs or possession with intent to sell (collectively, “trafficking”) is a serious felony.25 It carries a minimum punishment of:
- a fine of up to $1,000,000, and/or
- up to 20 years in federal prison.26
The federal government usually leaves investigation and prosecution of simple possession and small-time sales to the states.
However, people who engage in large-scale trafficking -- or who distribute synthetic drugs on the internet -- face an increased likelihood of prosecution under federal law.
Federal law also applies to drug offenses committed on federally owned properties within the state of California. Such properties include:
- post offices,
- interstate airports,
- federal buildings,
- federal courthouses,
- national parks and
- federally assisted housing.
5. Related offense – possession, sale or manufacture of “imitation” drugs
California law also prohibits the manufacture, sale, or possession for sale of “imitation controlled substances.”
An imitation controlled substance is a fake (or “bunk”) drug that is passed off as the real thing. It is not necessarily a synthetic substance. Often it is something that would ordinarily be legal, such as baby laxative or caffeine.
Likewise, a synthetic drug is not necessarily an imitation controlled substance. For legal purposes, a substance only becomes an imitation controlled substance when it is passed off as the real thing.
Example: Mary offers to buy Jane an ounce of pot for her birthday. But instead Mary buys some synthetic marijuana and dumps it into a baggie to make it look like the real thing. After Jane gets sick from one of the chemicals, Mary is arrested both for giving Jane synthetic cannabis and for giving her an imitation controlled substance.
There are two California laws that apply to the imitation controlled substances. They are:
- California Health and Safety Code 109575 – manufacturing or possessing “bunk” drugs for sale,27 and
- California Health and Safety Code 11355 – offering a controlled substance for sale, but delivering a fake drug instead.28
Manufacturing or possessing a fake drug for sale is a misdemeanor. The penalty is:
- up to six months in county jail, and/or
- a fine of up to $1,000.29
Offering a to sell or give someone a controlled substance but delivering a fake drug is a California wobbler offense. The prosecutor may, in his/her discretion, charge it as either a misdemeanor or a felony.30
As a misdemeanor, it can be punished by:
- one year in county jail.31
As a California felony, it carries a sentence of:
- 16 months, or two or three years in county jail.32
Call us for help...
For more information about California drug laws, or to discuss your case confidentially with one of our criminal defense attorneys, please don't hesitate to contact us at Shouse Law Group. Our California criminal law offices are located in and around Los Angeles, Orange County, San Diego, Riverside, San Bernardino, Ventura, San Jose, Oakland, the San Francisco Bay area, and several nearby cities.
Additionally, our Las Vegas Nevada criminal defense attorneys represent clients accused of violating Nevada drug laws. For more information, we invite you to contact our local attorneys at one of our Nevada law offices, located in Reno and Las Vegas.
1 California Health and Safety Code 11357.5(a) HS: Every person who sells, dispenses, distributes, furnishes, administers, or gives, or offers to sell, dispense, distribute, furnish, administer, or give, or possesses for sale any synthetic cannabinoid compound, or any synthetic cannabinoid derivative, to any person, is guilty of a misdemeanor punishable by imprisonment in a county jail not exceeding six months, or by a fine not exceeding one thousand dollars ($1,000), or by both that fine and imprisonment.
2 California Health and Safety Code 11375.5(a) HS: Every person who sells, dispenses, distributes, furnishes, administers, or gives, or offers to sell, dispense, distribute, furnish, administer, or give, any synthetic stimulant compound specified in subdivision (b), or any synthetic stimulant derivative, to any person, or who possesses that compound or derivative for sale, is guilty of a misdemeanor punishable by imprisonment in a county jail not exceeding six months, or by a fine not exceeding one thousand dollars ($1,000), or by both that fine and imprisonment.
3 California Health and Safety Code 11357.5(a), endnote 1, and California Health and Safety Code 11375.5(a), endnote 2.
4 California Health and Safety Code 11357.5(a), endnote 1.
5 California Health and Safety Code 11375.5(a), endnote 2.
6 See California Health and Safety Code 11357.5(b) HS for substances considered “synthetic cannabinoid compounds."
7 Other names are Incense, Fake Weed, Yucatan Fire, Genie, Skunk, Moon Rocks, Zohai, and Sexy Monkey. See e.g., Drugs.com, Synthetic Marijuana – Spice or K2.
8 Andrea Rael, What Is Synthetic Marijuana And How Does It Compare To Traditional Marijuana? Huffington Post, September 11, 2013.
9 Synthetic Marijuana – Spice or K2, endnote 7.
10 Joseph T. Rannazzisi, Drug Enforcement Administration, written statement to the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control on “The Dangers of Synthetic Cannabinoids and Stimulants,” April 6, 2011.
11 Synthetic Marijuana – Spice or K2, endnote 7.
12 Rael, endnote 8.
See also, American Association of Poison Control Centers, Synthetic Marijuana.
13 See California Health and Safety Code 11375.5 (b).
14 Brand names include Bliss, Blue Silk, Cloud Nine, Drone, Energy-1, Ivory Wave, Lunar Wave, Meow Meow, Ocean Burst, Pure Ivory, Purple Wave, Red Dove, Snow Leopard, Stardust, Vanilla Sky, White Dove, White Knight, and White Lightening. &&& DEA
15 Drug Enforcement Administration Drug Fact Sheet: Bath Salts or Designer Cathinones (Synthetic Stimulants).
16 Rannazzisi, endnote 10.
19 David DeSalvo, The Straight Dope on What Bath Salts Do to Your Brain and Why They're Dangerous, Forbes.com, June 5, 2012.
20 Alice G. Walton, Synthetic Drug 'Bath Salts' Trumps Methamphetamine In Addictiveness, Study Finds, Forbes.com, July 20, 2013.
22 21 U.S. Code 812(c) Schedule I (c) [synthetic stimulants] and (d) [synthetic cannabinoids].
See also 12 U.S. Code 813: A controlled substance analog shall, to the extent intended for human consumption, be treated, for the purposes of any Federal law as a controlled substance in schedule I.
This second law explains why so many synthetic drugs are labeled “not for human consumption.” It is an attempt to get around the harsh federal trafficking penalties.
23 21 U.S. Code 844
25 21 U.S. Code 841(a): Except as authorized by this subchapter, it shall be unlawful for any person knowingly or intentionally—
(1) to manufacture, distribute, or dispense, or possess with intent to manufacture, distribute, or dispense, a controlled substance.
26 21 U.S. Code 841.
27 California Health and Safety Code 109575 HS: Any person who knowingly manufactures, distributes, or possesses with intent to distribute, an imitation controlled substance is guilty of a misdemeanor and shall, if convicted, be subject to imprisonment for not more than six months in the county jail or a fine of not more than one thousand dollars ($1,000), or both the imprisonment and fine.
28 California Health and Safety Code 11355 HS: Every person who agrees, consents, or in any manner offers to unlawfully sell, furnish, transport, administer, or give (1) any controlled substance specified in subdivision (b) [opiates], (c) [opiate derivatives], or (e) [depressants], or paragraph (1) of subdivision (f) of Section 11054 [cocaine base], specified in paragraph (13) [marijuana], (14) [mescaline], (15) [peyote], or (20) [THC] of subdivision (d) of Section 11054, or specified in subdivision (b) [opium] or (c) [opiates] of Section 11055, or specified in subdivision (h) [hallucinogens] of Section 11056, or (2) any controlled substance classified in Schedule III, IV, or V which is a narcotic drug to any person, or who offers, arranges, or negotiates to have any such controlled substance unlawfully sold, delivered, transported, furnished, administered, or given to any person and who then sells, delivers, furnishes, transports, administers, or gives, or offers, arranges, or negotiates to have sold, delivered, transported, furnished, administered, or given to any person any other liquid, substance, or material in lieu of any such controlled substance shall be punished by imprisonment in the county jail for not more than one year, or pursuant to subdivision (h) of Section 1170 of the Penal Code.
29 California Health and Safety Code 109575 HS, endnote 27.
30 California Health and Safety Code 11355 HS, endnote 28.