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By Jesse Marx
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The guy in a ratty T-shirt and Chuck Taylors steps off the street and into the air-conditioned cool of the head shop. Around him, shoppers peruse the dazzling smorgasbord of smoking instruments, but he knows what he's here for. Stepping up to the register, he points at a small plastic packet. "Give me some K2," he says.
A warning sticker on the back of the baggie announces "Not for human consumption." Inside, the "novelty herbal incense" looks and smells like bottom-end potpourri. The coarse mash of faded leaf chunks, purple petals, and fibrous threads colored an improbable crimson would look more at home in a saucer on Grandma's toilet tank than in a stash box. It smells like room freshener.
What can't be seen is that the mixture has been sprayed with a chemical that mimics the effects of marijuana. The hit packs all the wallop of wood smoke. But after a few tokes, perceptions start to slip pleasantly out of place. The music on the stereo reveals unforeseen intricacies, and 20 minutes later an ice-cream sundae sounds terrific.
"It's just like pot; there's no difference," says Wally Sak, the proprietor of the Hideaway, a Dinkytown head shop. "It just shows how ridiculous the law is. Marijuana is illegal, but you can buy this stuff, get just as high, and that's fine. It makes the rules look stupid."
With its spacious floor plan and dramatic lighting, the Hideaway feels more like a high-end auto showroom than a head shop. Spotless glass cases protect a vast and varied array of smoking devices. Top-dollar vaporizers mingle with hand-blown glass bongs adorned with elaborate mythical creatures and $2,000 price tags. For consumers on a budget, there's a dizzying selection of one-hitters, dugouts, and bubblers. Sak even has his own glass-blowing shop turning out custom pipes and ornamental glassware.
But the shop's breakout top-selling product is arranged in little plastic baggies with brand names like Gorby, Happy Shaman, Serenity, and K2. These are the latest crop of "herbal smoke" products that are positioning themselves as legal alternatives to marijuana. There are dozens of brands, but the names of two of them, K2 and Spice, have become synonymous with the whole suite of synthetic cannabinoid mixtures.
Sak first encountered K2 at an industry convention in Las Vegas, and started offering it at the Hideaway six months ago. It has been a huge seller ever since.
"This stuff is doubling business," he says. "It's huge."
Sak isn't the only one in Minnesota selling K2. Across the state, gas stations, convenience stores, and smoke shops sell it—with a wink and a nod—as incense. But there's no doubt that this stuff is for smoking.
As with the previous generations of legal smokes that have been sold in the back of High Times for decades, these products won't show up in a drug test. But unlike those older products, the new generation relies on more than just mildly psychoactive herbs to deliver the goods. Each brand is different, but they all consist of some kind of vegetable matter that's been sprayed with a solution containing one or more synthetic cannabinoids.
Like THC, the main psychoactive substance in marijuana, these chemicals bind to the cannabinoid receptors in the brain. Unlike THC, there's nothing organic about them.
Most of them were invented in the lab of John W. Huffman, a Clemson researcher who has become the inadvertent Albert Hofmann of synthetic cannabinoids—JWH-018 and JWH-073, two of the compounds often found in the smoke products, bear his initials. Huffman was looking for chemicals that would activate cannabinoid receptors in the lab and in animal testing. In their pure form, dose for dose, they can be 100 times more powerful than THC. And while they're harder to synthesize than meth, a good chemist can whip them up without much trouble.
The new drug first became popular in Europe several years ago, but that receded when many European countries outlawed synthetic marijuana. Now the chemical pot is showing up in the U.S., and the drug-control establishment is taking notice.
The timing of K2's arrival couldn't be better for Minnesota smoke shops. Salvia divinorum, a short-lasting but powerful dissociative herb, was a previous best-selling item. A raft of YouTube videos showing smokers briefly taking leave of their bodies helped popularize the product, but also attracted the attention of anti-drug activists. The Minnesota legislature passed a law to ban Salvia this spring, and it goes into effect August 1.
That leaves K2 positioned to fill the hole Salvia is leaving in the market. But that may not be a good thing.
"There are a couple of really troubling issues," says Marilyn Huestis, chief of chemistry and drug metabolism at the National Institute on Drug Abuse. "For one thing, these chemicals were never intended for human consumption. We don't know what the risks are."
The synthetic marijuana market is like the Wild West. Shipments are coming in from China, Africa, and the Middle East, with no controls or oversight. The only scientists to ever analyze the chemical makeup of the products found that ingredients and dosages varied widely even between samples of the same brand.