Local News

Imitation pot legal in N.C.

Posted February 17, 2010
Updated February 18, 2010

— There may be nothing like the real thing, but some industrious marijuana users have seized on an obscure but easily accessible substance that mimics the drug's effects on the brain – creating a popular trade in legal dope that has stymied law enforcement authorities.

The users are buying a product known as K2 – or "Spice," Genie" and "Zohai" – that is commonly sold in head shops as incense. Produced in China and Korea, the mixture of herbs and spices is sprayed with a synthetic compound chemically similar to THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana. Users roll it up in joints or inhale it from pipes, just like the real thing.

Imitation pot causes controversy, K2 Imitation pot causes controversy

Though banned in most of Europe, K2's key ingredients are not regulated in the United States – a gap that has prompted lawmakers in Missouri and Kansas to consider new legislation.

"This isn't Jerry Garcia's marijuana," said state Rep. Jeff Roorda, a Democrat from the eastern Missouri town of Barnhart. "They've used chemicals to avoid creating something that's already illegal."

Authorities in Johnson County, Kan., discovered ex-convicts on probation smoking K2, and said it is spreading to high school students.

"This has become extremely popular," said Linda Weber, owner of The Vise smoke shop in the St. Louis suburb of St. Peters, who said she only sells to adults.

She said she sells about 60 packages a week, with suppliers calling her weekly to pitch new brands. She said she's keeping an eye on what state lawmakers decide, though, because "I definitely don't want to be selling it if it comes out that it's harmful."

K2 costs between $20 and $50 for three grams – similar to the street price of marijuana – but with the key advantages of being legal and undetectable in drug tests.

The key ingredients are believed to be the unintended result of scientific research on marijuana's effects.

Several Raleigh, N.C. area smoke shops and convenience stores sell it for $30 to $100 a pack.

North Carolina Board of Pharmacy Executive Director Jay Campbell isn't surprised by the rise of the potent incense.

"Chemistry always gets ahead of regulation," Campbell said.

Campbell believes the same concerns over marijuana impairment apply for K2.

"If this stuff is taking off and it's very popular and it's unregulated, there could be any number of substances added to these products," he said.

Dr. John Huffman, a Clemson University organic chemistry professor, was researching the effects of cannabinoids on the brain when his work resulted in a 1995 paper that contained the method and ingredients used to make the compound. That recipe found its way to marijuana users, who replicated Huffman's work and began spraying it onto dried flowers, herbs and tobacco.

"People who use it are idiots," said Huffman, referring to K2 smokers.

A proposed bill in Missouri would make possession a felony punishable by up to seven years in prison - identical to punishments given to users of real marijuana. A similar bill in Kansas would make possession a misdemeanor punishable, with up to a year in jail and a $2,500 fine, also the same as marijuana convictions.

The products are sold widely, but authorities in other states contacted by The Associated Press, including Pennsylvania, California and Michigan, said they haven't heard of their use as a drug.

Police in Missouri and Kansas said they've become aware of K2 in recent weeks.

In the rural southern Missouri city of West Plains, K2 is sold in a head shop just blocks from the high school. A botched attempt by teens to steal K2 from the shop brought the substance to the attention of police.

"A 10-year-old child could walk into a head shop and buy it," said West Plains Detective Shawn Rhoads. "It's not a tobacco, it's not regulated by anything. It would be like sending my 10-year-old son into Wal-Mart to buy potpourri."

Although it is legal, the military has banned possession of K2. The federal Drug Enforcement Administration has classified it a "drug or chemical of concern."

Conner Moore, 20, who is taking a semester off from Moberly Community College, said he and his friends started smoking K2 after reading online news articles and postings about the substance. He compares the high to smoking medical marijuana. The high, he says, is shorter.

"We just got on forums and looked it up and saw what other people said about it," he said. "Obviously if it comes out being bad, I'll obviously stop using it," Moore said. "There's really no sites out there that says what is in K2."

North Carolina State University student Nick Flickinger thinks K2 and similar products should be outlawed. Fellow student Thomas Johnston says not so fast.

“I think they need to study it more. I think they're jumping a little ahead of themselves just because they hear it creates a high,” Johnston said.

State Rep. Nelson Dollar, R-Wake County, said he would like to ban it.

“We particularly need to protect the young people who might take this drug and then go out and drive a car on our streets. This is not what we need,” Dollar said.

There is no data on the drug's toxicity or how long it stays in the body. In mice, it can lead to a lower body temperature, partial paralysis and the temporary inability to feel pain, according to the DEA.

One of the few studies of the compound's use was performed by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, a Portugal-based agency of the European Union, in November 2009. The study found the amount of synthetic compound varies widely between brands, and that despite being widely available, it isn't clear how many Europeans use it.

Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said K2 isn't much discussed within marijuana culture. "If government is genuinely concerned about controlling cannabis-related products, there is really only one thing that seems to have an effect: a tax stamp," St. Pierre said.

22 Comments

This story is closed for comments. Comments on WRAL.com news stories are accepted and moderated between the hours of 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. Monday through Friday.

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  • dazrite Feb 19, 6:55 p.m.

    legalize marijuana growing, possession, sale and use. Tax the sale of it. Remove the 50% of the prison population that is in for marijuana related crimes. Unburden the tax payer.

  • bubbba Feb 19, 2:55 p.m.

    Since when is K2 new...Its been around for years and years.
    WRAL is lost on some stories. K2 is trash and not a good high.
    Just legalize pot and be done with all this garbage and focus on real drugs like coke and meth and the cartels that run them.

  • mistersinister Feb 19, 2:41 p.m.

    "Pot is easily available and pretty cheap. Why waste time with this stuff???"

    ummm, because its legal????????

  • aspenstreet1717 Feb 19, 2:26 p.m.

    Pot is easily available and pretty cheap. Why waste time with this stuff???

  • 1trhl Feb 19, 12:41 p.m.

    Look up JWH-018, JWH-073, HU-210, and tetrahydrocannibinol on wikipedia for more info on these substances.

  • 1trhl Feb 19, 12:27 p.m.

    There are several known substances that are active for the cannabinoid receptors. If they ban the ones used in these products, more products containing non-banned cannabinoid agonists will show up on the market until the DEA and law makers study and ban them all. There are synthetic cannabinoids that are many times more active than THC. Maybe some of these potheads should study organic chemistry and learn how to make their own.

  • hollylama Feb 19, 10:49 a.m.

    If its BANNED in Europe and NOT REGULATED here in the US....LEAVE IT ALONE!! There's a reason its banned in Europe and not because they have more lenient mary jane laws.

  • claytontarheel Feb 19, 10:05 a.m.

    I'm not about to go back to the days of eating pancakes at 2am, but anyone that thinks the government should be spending our tax dollars of enforcement of marijuana laws is clueless. Legalize the stuff and put a tax stamp on it.

    If they put it on a ballot, it would pass overwhelmingly.

  • stupiditydeservesnosympathy Feb 19, 9:12 a.m.

    State Rep. Nelson Dollar, R-Wake County, said he would like to ban it.

    “We particularly need to protect the young people who might take this drug and then go out and drive a car on our streets. This is not what we need,” Dollar said.

    ---Glad to see this man is not concerned about the REAL PROBLEM we have: DRUNK DRIVING. I would like to see the data on people who gotten high and caused accidents resulting in death vs the data with drunk driving. I'm pretty sure drunk driving is higher end sarcasm.

  • familyfour Feb 18, 7:47 p.m.

    If ya gonna go around the block to get to yer backyard, why not just cut out the walk, take it to your backyard...and be done with it.....less chemicals, less human contamination....more revenue....

    Win, win.

    k2 is just another cancer causing gov't funded pharma-hole.

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