A legal pot gets the attention of police
It burns like marijuana, works like marijuana and it sort of looks like it, too.
And it’s perfectly legal.
It’s called K2, and area police confirm that the little bags of dried herbs are starting to pop up among teens and young adults.
Although it may be new on the local drug scene, K2 and similar brands have the attention of a Kansas lawmaker who said she would consider outlawing the substance. That’s because the health risks of smoking one of these dubious doobies is unknown. Some European countries already have moved to ban it.
“It is new on the scene here,” said Johnson County Sheriff’s Deputy Tom Erickson. “It’s just been a few weeks since we found out it was being sold locally.”
Available for sale online and at a store in Lawrence, K2 comes in a small pouch. Inside is a mix of dried herbs that look like oregano but are laced with chemicals designed to mimic the effects of marijuana. Other brands go by the names Spice, Genie and Zohai.
Because the active ingredients are just a few atoms away from the real thing, the synthetic stuff isn’t covered by laws banning marijuana. This means K2 and similar products are legal — even though the effects are identical to pot.
Johnson County police first discovered the drug was being used by ex-convicts on probation. They turned to K2 hoping it wouldn’t show up on drug tests as marijuana. Now police are finding it in high schools.
The Sacred Journey, a botanical store in Lawrence, sells bags of K2 for $15 to $30. A store manager declined to comment, but an employee said K2 should be burnt as incense and isn’t meant to be smoked. A competing brand is marketed online as “plant food.”
The Johnson County Crime Lab ran an analysis on K2. Although it tested negative for THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, it was positive for synthetic cannabinoids. These are chemical compounds created in a lab that act on the brain like THC.
K2 contains two synthetic cannabinoids created at Clemson University. Chemistry professor John W. Huffman said an undergraduate student working in his lab actually created one of the compounds, called JWH-018 after Huffman’s initials.
Huffman said his research was designed to help find new pharmaceutical drugs and a deeper understanding of brain chemistry. He had no intention of inventing a new way to get high.
“But I’m not the least bit surprised,” Huffman said. “If you make something illegal, like marijuana, people will look for an alternative.”
Yet the fake marijuana may be more dangerous than the real McCoy, according to Huffman. He noted that unlike with marijuana, the risks of smoking synthetic cannabis haven’t been studied. His research suggests the compounds likely break down in the body into carcinogens.
The manufacturer behind K2 and similar brands remains a mystery. No information is available about the company or individuals making the products. Huffman said he thought much of the new synthetic cannabis comes from labs in Asia.
He suspects the manufacturer turns the synthetic cannabinoid into powdered or liquid form and mixes it with otherwise harmless herbs.
Britain, Germany, Poland, France, South Korea and Russia have moved to ban the sale of synthetic cannabis within the past year. Kansas may not be far behind.
State Rep. Peggy Mast, an Emporia Republican, hadn’t heard about K2 until informed by The Kansas City Star. But she’s worried enough to suggest the state should take action.
“I would be very happy to sponsor a bill to make this illegal,” Mast said.
Mast sponsored legislation a few years ago that outlawed the hallucinogenic plants jimson weed and salvia divinorum.
Johnson County Sheriff’s Deputy Chris Farkes worries that teens may assume synthetic cannabis is safe because it’s legal.
“I’ve even talked with parents who say, ‘Oh, it’s completely legal so I don’t have a problem with my kid smoking it,’ ” Farkes said.
But Huffman isn’t so sure outlawing his creation will help much.
“You ban one and they’ll come up with another one,” he said.
By DAVID KLEPPER
The Star’s Topeka correspondent