The green, leafy substance is sold by the gram and packaged in small plastic bags with tie-dye logos.
But it is not marijuana -- it is called "K2 Summit," a legal herbal incense that sent two Sarasota County students to the hospital this week.
The 17-year-old boys, who attend Sarasota and Riverview high schools, respectively, were dizzy and disoriented after smoking K2, authorities said. Neither student was seriously ill, but the cases led law enforcement officials and school administrators to issue a warning to parents.
Sheriff Tom Knight said that in addition to the potential harmful side effects of the substance, using K2 could lead teenagers to get the sense and feel of smoking marijuana or other illegal drugs.
"It's out there and we want people to be aware of it," said Knight. "It may not be illegal, but it certainly appears to be dangerous."
K2 is legal to buy and is sold on the Internet or at some local smoke shops at about $15 a gram -- roughly the same price as cheap marijuana.
Other similar products are on the market and sold locally, such as "Spice," "Tribal Warrior" or "Fire and Ice."
Drug experts say the herbs are laced with a synthetic chemical that is similar to some of the compounds found in marijuana. The high is minimal, experts say, sort of like the buzz associated with a tobacco cigarette.
Unlike cigarettes or alcohol, students can buy K2 because there is no age limit on purchase. Also, officials say the incense will not show up in drug tests.
But the manufacturers, who mark their packages to say "not for human consumption," clearly are marketing the product to drug users.
"They sell it by the gram," says Skip Wilhoit, coordinator of the Manatee County's Safe and Drug-Free Schools program. "They use psychedelic graphics. It looks like marijuana. Clearly, the manufacturers are targeting people who are interested in drugs.
Authorities say they have not seen a rise in the use of K2, but the cases in Sarasota County were remarkably similar. At Sarasota High on Tuesday, a teenager fainted in the cafeteria and later admitted to smoking K2 in a cigar before coming to school.
On Thursday afternoon, a student was involved in a confrontation at Riverview High and a school resource deputy found a plastic container with K2. The teenager admitted to smoking the substance, as well as taking half a Xanax and half a roxycodone painkiller before school.
One of the student's parents, who asked that her name not be used, says that she did not know K2 existed and hoped school officials could keep it off campus.
"Is there anything legislators can do to keep this stuff out of stores and away from kids?" she asked.
Meanwhile, schools are asking parents to look out for signs their children are using the substance. Whether it is a sudden change in mood, new friends or a decline in grades, parents should be aware that the product is on the market and easily accessible.
"Just talk to your kids," said Larry Leon, chief of the Sarasota School District's police agency. "Be involved, know what they're doing. Because this stuff is out there and it's tempting for kids to get into it."
By Anthony Cormier
December 11, 2009