Some know it as fake pot.
Users say the leafy green herbal blend gives them a high similar to marijuana.
And for now, it remains legal in Missouri and Illinois.
It's called K2. Police say the brand of "herbal incense" is growing in popularity among teens and young adults in the St. Louis area.
But a proposed K2 ban in Missouri aims to kill the buzz about the herb before it really fires up. Meanwhile, police and school officials say they are concerned about its unknown health risks as it becomes more widespread. Kansas could soon become the first state to outlaw it, after its House followed the Senate and approved a bill Wednesday targeting chemicals used to make K2.
Missouri state Rep. Ward Franz, R-West Plains, has introduced a bill to add the chemical compound in K2 to Missouri's list of illegal drugs.
"We've got to do something, because somebody's going to be using this, driving a vehicle and killing somebody," said Franz, who says K2 use is widespread in the Springfield, Mo., area.
The dried herbs come in 3-gram packages of various flavors, including "Blonde," "Pink," "Citron" and "Summit." At least three shops in the St. Louis area sell them for about $30 per pack.
"It's taken off like wildfire," said Joe Kuhlenberg, 40, co-owner of the Hypnotized smoke shop in Florissant. Kuhlenberg says he has carried K2 for about four months and estimates he sells at least 100 packages a week. "The stuff just flies off the shelves."
K2 herbs contain synthetic chemicals that experts say imitate marijuana's effects on the brain. Other herbal blends such as Spice, Blayze II or Red Bird are available, but merchants and users say K2 is the hottest brand now because it packs a powerful, relatively cheap high.
"It's real popular," said Zach Baumstark, 19, of Lake Saint Louis, who recently bought three packs at the South 94 Bait Tackle and Smoke Shop in St. Charles County. He says he smokes it because it's a legal alternative to marijuana.
"I get an equal high (to marijuana), and it doesn't make me cough as much," he said.
The Missouri Highway Patrol crime lab in Jefferson City tested K2 samples submitted by police in Columbia and Springfield and found no THC, the narcotic in marijuana, or any other illegal substances. But one of the samples tested positive for synthetic cannabinoids JWH-018 and JWH-073, developed in the mid-1990s by Clemson University researchers conducting lab experiments on mice to test the compounds' effects on the brain.
Clemson professor John W. Huffman, whose initials give the compounds their name, said the effects on humans have never been studied. Research on the compounds suggests they are at least three times more potent than THC.
"I emphasize that this compound was not designed to be a super-THC," Huffman said in an e-mail to the Post-Dispatch. "It should absolutely not be used as a recreational drug."
Drug investigators with the Illinois State Police and the St. Louis city and county police departments say they know little about K2 and don't believe it has become widespread in the St. Louis area. St. Charles County sheriff's deputies began researching it recently after finding a discarded K2 wrapper in the parking lot of Francis Howell High School, said Sheriff Tom Neer.
"I'm hoping it's just trendy," Neer said. "If this compound has any effect similar to marijuana, then it's certainly a concern."
Leonard Naeger, a professor at the St. Louis College of Pharmacy, said potential dangers of smoking K2 are not clear.
"I don't think it's gonna kill anybody," Naeger said. "But nobody knows what this K2 stuff does, because it hasn't been out long enough for there to be any documented studies on it."
K2 will be a main discussion topic at a meeting today of St. Charles County school resource officers at St. Peters City Hall.
Authorities are concerned that the manufacturer of K2 remains a mystery. Investigators say the blend first became popular in parts of Europe in 2008. According to the federal Drug Enforcement Agency, some European and Asian countries, including France, Austria and Germany, have outlawed some products which contained the compounds JWH-018 and JWH-073.
Linda Weber, owner of the Vise shop in St. Peters, says she has been selling K2 to those 18 and older for about a month and knows people are using it to get high.
"I tell them, 'If you feel like you're growing a third eye, you might want to cool it,'" she said.
The packages, labeled "not for consumption," lack any information about where it's manufactured. Doug Franklin, 50, a Springfield, Mo., supplier to several vendors in the St. Louis area, insists K2 is a safe product that gives marijuana users a legal alternative. But he won't reveal where he buys it.
"We are producing such an ungodly amount of sales from K2 that it's beyond comprehension," Franklin said.
Dan Allder, 27, of St. Charles, began smoking K2 a month ago after hearing about it from friends. But he's not surprised police and lawmakers want it off the streets.
"It's just an alternative to weed is the way I look at it," Allder said. "It would be nice if the government could just keep their fingers out of it."
By Joel Currier
February 4, 2010
St. Louis Post-Dispatch