As if real marijuana and cocaine weren't enough, Las Vegas police now have to deal with the fake stuff.
Officers discovered hundreds of pounds of synthetic marijuana and cocaine at a building in the 3600 block of Highland Drive, just west of the Strip between Spring Mountain Road and Twain Avenue.
Inside was an up to $30 million manufacturing laboratory, one of the first operations of its scale ever seen in Las Vegas, said Lt. Laz Chavez, who supervises the valley's drug task force.
"Synthetic drugs seem to be the new trend, and this was what is referred to as a super-synthetic drug lab with massive quantities produced," Chavez said.
"This is the first time I can remember dealing with these drugs at this quantity. We've seen (the drugs) at head shops but never a lab."
Police said the drugs were being manufactured in Las Vegas and transported to Utah and other states.
Several suspects were tailed by detectives Monday morning from the Highland Drive lab to Utah, where authorities found a second lab. The suspects, whose names were not released by the Utah attorney general's office on Tuesday, were then arrested, Chavez said.
The Utah bust netted more than 500 pounds of ready-for-sale drugs, Chavez said. He estimated that 300 more pounds were left behind in the Las Vegas lab.
Synthetic marijuana, sold by its street name Spice, is a mixture of herbs and chemicals that produces a similar effect to marijuana, Chavez said.
But the synthetic drug is much more potent than its natural counterpart, he said.
"They're very strong hallucinogens that can lead to violent or even suicidal tendencies in some cases," he said.
The legality of synthetic drugs has been complicated because of inconsistencies in state and federal laws.
Although the federal government banned "fake" marijuana and cocaine in 2010, Nevada did not ban synthetic marijuana until May. And synthetic cocaine remains technically legal under state law.
Before May, Chavez said, Las Vegas police did not arrest people using those drugs for personal use, although they could have sought federal charges if a trafficking operation were suspected.
At the time, synthetic marijuana was freely available in local smoke shops and head shops, where it was marketed as incense or potpourri, he said.
Kent Bitsko, director of the federal High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas program in Nevada, scoffed at that notion.
"I don't think anyone's paying $40 for a quarter ounce of potpourri," Bitsko said. "They knew what they were buying."
Because of the new law, synthetic marijuana has been mostly forced out of the smoke shops. Synthetic cocaine, however, which is marketed as "bath salt," remains a problem.
Police are working with the Nevada State Board of Pharmacy to add "bath salt" to its list of banned substances,
Because drug manufacturers frequently change their chemical recipes, Chavez said it takes time for police to discover what actually is in the drug they want to ban.
"The chemists keep coming up with new, innovative ways to create these drugs, and we have to adapt," he said.
That can be dangerous because people using the drugs have no idea what chemicals they're snorting or smoking, he said.
"You hope they're adding stuff that will get you high, but you don't know," Chavez said. "The guys that sell these things don't care what it does to you. They just want to make money."
Bitsko said synthetic drugs became a significant problem in Nevada about three years ago.
Battling this drug problem has been like throwing darts at a moving target, he said.
"About the time that we come up with a good way of catching criminals, they come up with another way," he said. "It's a constant game of catch-up."
Because police don't have an accurate field test to determine the chemical makeup of synthetic drugs at the scene, the police lab will determine what is actually in Monday's haul.
There are five chemicals typically used to make synthetic marijuana that are banned by Nevada.
Chavez is confident that those chemicals were used in the drugs police seized, but he knows there will come a day when drug chemists will find something else to mix together.
And then, the laws no longer will apply.
"We're just now being introduced to these things. To battle it, we must introduce new laws."
Contact reporter Mike Blasky at email@example.com or 702-383-0283.