K2 and the synthetic marijuana boom

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.

"When you smoke this stuff, you don't know what's in it," Huestis says. "Maybe they sprayed it with JWH-018. Maybe they sprayed it with other stuff as well. Maybe their batch was pure, maybe it wasn't. It's a total crapshoot."

There have also been troubling reports of adverse reactions—everything from elevated heart rate to respiratory problems and seizures. David Rozga, an 18-year-old from Indianola, Iowa, killed himself with a gun shortly after smoking synthetic marijuana. Since the beginning of the year, there have been 698 medical incidents linked to synthetic marijuana, up from just 13 in 2009.

The federal Drug Enforcement Agency has added synthetic cannabinoids to its list of drugs of interest, the first step toward making them illegal. But the federal process could take years, and some states aren't waiting. North Dakota and six other states have already outlawed JWH-018 and its cousins. Another seven, including Illinois, Michigan, and Missouri, have legislation pending.

Stacy Huberty was in her Hastings home one morning in June when she got a frightened call from her daughter.

"Mom, you better get over here right away," her daughter said.

Huberty's 14-year-old son, Sam, was home on a weekend pass from his inpatient treatment for marijuana addiction. He was at a relative's house not far away. The adults who were supposed to be keeping an eye on Sam had stepped out for a second, and a neighbor's kid brought over synthetic marijuana. Sam tried it, and had a bad reaction.

Huberty found her son sprawled on the tiled floor of the bathroom, vomiting and dripping with sweat. Terrified, Huberty threw her son in the family van and sped to the nearest hospital. On the way, Sam became unresponsive.

"He was going to die," says Huberty, a licensed nurse.

At the hospital, the doctors pumped Sam full of potassium, and he revived. But as the fear of losing her son wore off, Huberty became outraged. She wrote a letter to her local newspaper and started talking to her representatives. State Sen. Katie Sieben and state Rep. Denny McNamara pledged this month to sponsor laws to ban synthetic marijuana when the Legislature meets again in January. If the bill passes, K2 could be off the shelves by March or April.

The Minnesota Board of Pharmacy has also targeted K2. On Monday, the board began a process to add known synthetic cannabinoids to the state's list of Schedule 1 drugs. Even with all the required notices and waiting periods, the Pharmacy Board could make K2 illegal in as little as three months.

The irony is that there would be no market for K2 in the first place if marijuana weren't outlawed. The high is just about what you'd expect from year-old dirt weed: It makes you stupid for a couple of hours and leaves you feeling like your mouth is an ashtray and your head is full of cloudy water.

This is the essential paradox of the synthetic weed products: In a legal vacuum, no one would ever choose to smoke it more than once. Its only appeal is to the poor souls whose paycheck comes with random drug tests, or those without connections to the real stuff.

"The only reason anyone is using this stuff is because they can get arrested for using marijuana," says Mike Meno, a spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project. "We could have a legal regulated marijuana market where people know what they're getting. Instead we have people messing around with these mystery drugs that are much less safe. It's nonsense."

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