The economic crisis in France has apparently compelled thieves and pot-smokers to find a cheaper (and quite legal) alternative to cannabis – hydrangea, a flowering plant that originated in East Asia. French gendarmes claim that a “gang” of thieves have committed a series of thefts of the popular ornamental flower – also called "hortensia" in France – from scores of gardens in the northern parts of the country to smoke and/or sell.

The Daily Telegraph reported that potheads can obtain a high similar to that produced by marijuana by tearing off the heads of the hydrangea and smoking them. Specifically, desperate addicts dry the petals, mix them with tobacco, and then smoke that concoction and inhale, soon reaching a flowery hallucinogenic state of euphoria. Indeed, it has the same effect as tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the "active" ingredient in cannabis plants.

Jean Carpentier, a resident of the tiny hamlet of Hucqueliers in the Pas-de-Calais region, was among several homeowners and gardeners whose various hydrangea varieties had their flower heads torn off by robbers. “The thieves came and cut my plants right under my window,” he told the regional TV station, France-3. “They must have been well-informed as our garden is not visible from the street. The gendarmes came and took a look and agreed it was strange but said that they had other fish to fry.” But local law enforcement were compelled to take the robberies seriously after similar thefts were reported in neighboring villages like Humbert, Saint-Michel-sous-Bois and Bécourt.

Captain Frédéric Evrard, a spokesman for the Nord-Pas-de-Calais regional police, tied the rash of thefts to France's economic malaise. “With the [financial] crisis, we have the impression people are now turning toward natural products, because synthetic ones are more expensive,” he told Le Figaro newspaper. “If these thefts are linked to drug use, then it’s the same sort of wave as the hallucinogenic mushrooms collected in the wild.”

As with marijuana, smoking hydrangeas could lead to some serious health problems, said medical experts. “The secondary effects of [smoking hydrangea] are very bad for the health,” Kurt Hostettmann, honorary professor of pharmacology at the University of Lausanne and Geneva in Switzerland, told Le Matin newspaper last year. These outcomes include the development of “intestinal and respiratory problems, a speeding up of the heart, and dizziness.” Smoking large amounts of the flower, he warned, can even lead to the release of hydrogen cyanide, or prussic acid, the substance used to manufacture Zyklon-B, the Nazis' favorite deadly poisonous gas.

However, others took a decidedly less grave view of the consequences of “flower smoking.” “You’d have to smoke a hell of a lot of hydrangea to really put your life in danger, unless you were allergic to the stuff,” said Nicolas Authier, an expert on addictions, told Europe 1 radio.

The Guardian newspaper reported that smoking hydrangea may have originated in neighboring Germany, where private and public gardeners in Bavaria complained of a similar flurry of robberies a few years ago. In 2011, Pharmazeutische Zeitung, a German pharmaceutical journal, reported that gardeners in the eastern part of the country reported missing hydrangea plants from their gardens. Last year, The Local newspaper reported, Bavaria witnessed another flower-related “crime spree.” “We’ve recognized the phenomenon of hydrangea theft for at least 10 years,” Frank Federau, a spokesman for the Lower Saxony state criminal police told the paper. “The numbers usually rise in spring.” Federau emphasized that smoking hydrangea is not illegal – but of course, stealing them is.

Drug stated that hydrangea, “one of the favorite shrubs of American gardeners, has leaves that can be rolled into joints that will either get one very stoned or very sick.” The website added: “If intake is limited to one joint, the smoker will probably achieve a pleasant, marijuana--like high along with a slightly drunken feeling.”

In France, possession, smoking, growing, selling and purchasing of marijuana is illegal, while trafficking can lead to heavy penalties, including jail terms., a Russian news service, reported that anyone in France caught cultivating marijuana plants could potentially face up to 30 years in prison and a 7.5 million euro ($10.2 million) fine.

Nonetheless, cannabis is wildly popular in France. In 2010, 13.4 million Frenchmen and women between the ages of 11 and 75 said they have tried marijuana at least once, while about 1.2 million are believed to be regular users of the drug, according to the French observatory of drugs and addictions (OFDT), said Euronews. noted that prices for hash and weed can vary by city, depending on availability. The most common form of the drug, hashish, ranges in price from $20 to $30 or more for 10 to 15 grams.