The Times Square driver was reportedly high on synthetic marijuana -- here's what it is

Photo: Flickr/Raquel Baranow. Licensed under Creative Commons 2.0

A driver who crashed his car into pedestrians on the footpath in New York City’s Times Square on Thursday morning tested positive for synthetic marijuana, multiple outlets are reporting.

Richard Rojas, 26, lost control of his vehicle just before noon on Thursday. His vehicle hopped the curb, killing one, 18-year-old Alyssa Elsman, and injuring 22, the New York City Police Department confirmed.

Rojas reportedly tested positive for synthetic marijuana, otherwise known as spice or K2, after he was brought into police custody.

NYPD officials declined to confirm the report to Business Insider, and would only say their “investigation is ongoing.”

Rojas, a Bronx resident and Navy veteran, was previously arrested for a DUI in 2008 and 2015, reports Pix11. He was also reportedly charged with menacing earlier this month.

Synthetic marijuana is a lab-produced, mind-altering drug that’s been soaring in popularity in recent years. It’s illegal to purchase and consume in New York state.

Giant underground laboratories, many of which are in China, are churning out thousands of pounds of the stuff. This week, the DEA arrested a man whose lab likely produced the chemicals in some 70% of the spice sold in the US, the New York Times reports.

Although it’s often marketed as a “safer alternative to traditional marijuana,” spice is dangerous — it’s been reported to cause seizures, psychosis, and vomiting, among other side effects.

Here’s what you need to know about synthetic marijuana:

This is spice. It looks fairly harmless -- like herbs in a shiny package -- but it isn't.

Reports suggest that since 2009, drugs like spice, or synthetic marijuana, have killed roughly 1,000 Americans -- many of them young people in high school.

The drugmakers change up the specific ingredients in the drugs so fast -- and produce them in such massive quantities -- that drug enforcement can't keep up.

The drugs are created in powdered form in giant underground laboratories like this one. Many of the labs are in China.


Then they are packed up in large bags...

...and shipped to the US in huge containers labelled 'fertiliser' or 'industrial solvent.'

Here's a small bag of the powdered drug, before it's been liquefied and added to plant material.

Wikimedia Commons/Psychonaut

There, wholesale buyers purchase the drugs and turn them into liquids by dissolving them in acetone or alcohol.

Next, they use the liquid to douse dry plant matter, and package it up in shiny metallic baggies.

The stuff inside is then rolled up and smoked.

Often, the drugs are packaged as 'plant food' or 'potpourri' so they can be legally sold in stores.

Flickr/Raquel Baranow. Licensed under Creative Commons 2.0

The back of these packages often includes the coy warning, 'Not intended for human consumption.'

Flickr/Raquel Baranow. Licensed under Creative Commons 2.0

Regardless, the drugs have continued to soar in popularity.

So far this year, poison centres received reports of 3,548 exposures to synthetic marijuana, according to the American Association of Poison Control Centres.

Many experts say 'synthetic marijuana' is a huge misnomer for these drugs, since they produce far different effects and can be up to 100 times more potent than traditional marijuana.

For example, the first form of the psychoactive ingredient used in spice was called JWH-018, named for the initials of the scientist John W. Huffman who first invented it in 2008.

Just like with the main psychoactive ingredient in traditional marijuana, THC, the psychoactive ingredients in synthetic marijuana bind to the brain's CB1 receptors. Because spice is so much stronger, however, it is much more likely to cause everything from seizures to psychosis.

More from Erin Brodwin:

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