Police: Herb is legal but dangerous
What would happen if marijuana were legalized?
The scene might look like the one Thursday night at the South 94 Bait and Tackle Trading Post. Located in Weldon Spring, the store sells K2 and a variety of other synthetic cannabinoids - fake pot.
Sold as "incense," the herbal mix is sprayed with a synthetic compound that mimics the effects of marijuana. Lawmakers in Missouri and Kansas are trying to ban the product. But as of Friday, it was still legal.
The clerk at the bait shop called it a "slow night" Thursday, but a steady stream of customers filed in to purchase K2 or its competitor, DaScents. During one hour, 16 people purchased packets at $30-$50 each. Another seven people called to ask if K2 was available. The clerk said they were sold out of the most popular flavor, K2 Summit. He suggested they try DaScents' Demon flavor instead, which he called "more potent" than K2.
Store owner Pam Tabatt said she began selling K2 on Feb. 1. In a matter of days, the controversial product put the store on the national map.
"It has helped our business out tremendously," Tabatt said. "In a time of bad economy, where everybody is pinching pennies, I've got new traffic coming in."
Television and newspaper reporters have come from around the country to interview Tabatt. A television crew from Chicago arrived Thursday night, only to find Tabatt had already gone home.
One of the customers Thursday night was Jeff Jacobs, a 50-year-old former Chrysler worker from Affton. Jacobs said he had driven 38 miles to buy K2.
"This is my first time buying this stuff," he said. "I'm an online gamer and everybody online was talking about it. I feel like an addict driving this far to get it. But I got nothing else to do tonight."
Jacobs said he used to smoke marijuana, but quit at age 26 after his son was born. He began smoking marijuana again in 2008 after Chrysler laid him off, he said.
Jacobs said smoking marijuana or K2 "doesn't make me a bad guy."
The bait shop sells 12 flavors of K2, including the original Summit and the more potent KO, or "knockout."
Two other stores in St. Charles County sell synthetic cannabinoids: The Vise and Retro Active, both in St. Peters. Retro Active does not sell K2, but sells a competing brand called Blaze. The Vise sells at least five flavors of K2. An employee at The Vise said K2 sales were so strong, he credited the product with "saving the store."
But sales would come to an abrupt end if the Missouri Legislature passes bills currently moving through the House and Senate.
State Rep. Ward Franz, R-151st District, sponsored a bill that would place the synthetic compounds in K2 and similar products on the state's list of controlled substances. Possession would become a felony, Franz said.
The bill stalled in committee last week. As of Wednesday, it was in the House Rules Committee. Franz said he expected it to reach the House floor in a matter of days.
Kristen Blanchard, spokeswoman for Speaker of the House Ron Richards, said the fact that the speaker referred the bill to committee meant it was a priority item.
"There is a concern with this compound becoming more of a danger to children," she said. "When citizens are at risk, we need to take measures to prevent that."
State Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-19th District, introduced a similar K2 ban in the Senate.
In Kansas, bills to outlaw synthetic marijuana have passed the House and Senate, positioning Kansas to become the first state to ban the product.
'Anything to get you high'
Jenna Andrews, 17, said she felt lawmakers should place temporary restrictions on the drug until more research determines its health effects.
"But it is only a matter of time before something else comes out, another alternative, anything to get you high," she said.
Andrews, who lives in St. Charles, said K2 "got huge" over a two-week period, propelled by teens telling their friends about it.
"You hear two words - legal weed - and everyone goes absolutely insane," she said. "Everyone went crazy buying it. Everyone wants to see how legit it really is."
Andrews said she knows people who have never tried marijuana but have smoked K2 because it is legal. Andrews said she smoked K2 every night for several days.
"I wanted to experiment with it," she said. "I gave it up after I had a bad trip with it. I know it is all in your brain, but I felt excruciating pain inside. I was shaking in my skin. The next day, I said I was giving it up for Lent."
Murphy Coyne, 17, said he first heard of K2 at least four months before it made news. The Francis Howell High School junior said students in his classes are talking about it, saying it is just like marijuana, does not show up in drug tests and is not illegal.
Coyne said he has smoked K2 about five times. The first time, the effects lasted 45-60 minutes, he said.
"For the first five minutes, I didn't feel any different," he said. "Then I started feeling a body high. Imagine sitting on the most comfortable bed you have ever sat on. Your whole body feels like that. Then my vision got blurred, like tunnel vision. It seemed like everything was more clear. Everything was flowing more easily and thoughts were clicking faster. Everything became a bit funnier."
An hour later, he was back to normal, Coyne said.
"I did not feel sick," he said. "No coughing. I felt the same as I did before I smoked it."
Both Coyne and Andrews said K2 users build a resistance to the drug. After a few uses, it stops producing a high.
Andrews said most of the teens she knows buy their K2 at the South 94 Bait and Tackle Trading Post.
Andrews said the bait shop was especially popular with students from Francis Howell High School, located southwest of the store on Highway 94.
Police, schools concerned
The local buzz over K2 began about a month ago after a school resource officer found an empty K2 Summit packet in the Francis Howell High School parking lot.
St. Charles County Sheriff Tom Neer said the packet's owner had not broken any laws or school rules. Out of "curiosity," the sheriff's department crime lab tested a 3-gram sample of K2, he said.
The substance tested negative for tetrahydrocannabinols (THC) found in marijuana. Analysis revealed the presence of JWH-018, a synthetic compound similar to THC but not structurally related. JWH-018 is not a controlled substance under state or federal law.
"We've seen a little bit of this stuff around in the last couple months, sporadically," Neer said. "It is not against the law, so if we see it in cars or on people we stop, we can't take any legal action."
Neer said some people report it gives them a high, while others say it makes them dizzy or gives them a headache.
"I have a concern about the product if it is determined that it can alter a person's senses," Neer said. "You get someone using it behind the wheel and it impairs their driving. Certainly, I'm concerned about it."
Lt. Craig McGuire, who supervises the county's school resource officers, said police began talking about K2 last fall. Most of the information they receive comes from students, he said.
"K2 is not as easy to detect as marijuana," McGuire said. "With marijuana, you can usually smell it on someone. But K2 does not have the same effects, like bloodshot, watery eyes. It's a fairly small problem now, but we want to stay on top of it before it gets worse."
Jennifer Gasper, communications specialist for the Francis Howell School District, said school officials had only recently heard of K2 but have educated themselves quickly.
"We haven't seen any impact on school, but we are aware of it and are taking precautionary measures," Gasper said. "We are concerned they are selling it in our area, close to our schools."
The district's student drug testing program cannot detect K2, Gasper said. Current no-smoking policies would prohibit students from smoking K2 on campus, she said.
District officials plan to change the code of conduct for the 2010-11 school year, adding policies addressing look-alike drugs that are not illegal but are potentially harmful, Gasper said. Once the new policies are adopted, students could be disciplined for possessing substances that mimic the effects of illegal drugs, Gasper said.
"It is just like the way our code of conduct prohibits inappropriate use of prescription pills or inhaling substances like glue or aerosols," Gasper said. "Look-alike drugs will not be permitted, whether they are legal or not."
On Feb. 10, Lake Saint Louis Police responded to a man who complained of chest pains after smoking K2, said Assistant Chief Capt. Chris Digiuseppi. The man was sweating profusely, slumped over the couch, having trouble speaking, according to the police report. The man said he thought he was dying. Digiuseppi said it was the only K2-related incident he knew about.
"It seems like a dangerous substance to me, but people have to take responsibility for their own actions," Digiuseppi said. "It says on the label that it is not for consumption."
Leonard Naeger, a professor at the St. Louis College of Pharmacy, said K2 and similar products have all the same health drawbacks as real marijuana, plus potential unknown hazards.
"They impair people's judgment and interfere with driving," said Naeger, who has taught pharmacology for 40 years. "That is the biggest concern."
Users are likely to have respiratory problems similar to people who smoke, Naeger said. Because K2 smokers do not use filters, the respiratory effects could be worse, he said.
"All the stuff you get when you burn weed is going in your lung," he said. "Who knows what you are smoking?"
By Raymond Castile
February 27, 2010
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