Kansas Moves To Outlaw Marijuana-Mimicking Incense

fromKCUR

Some shops in Kansas City have been legally selling K-2, a synthetic form of marijuana. K-2 is marketed as an incense, but laced with compounds that experts say mimic the affects of marijuana. Kansas lawmakers are close to making the substance illegal because of its potential for abuse, making it the first state to do so.

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Across the Midwest, some people who want to get high are turning to a legal synthetic version of marijuana. It's commonly known as K2, but it also goes by names like Spice and Yucatan Fire. Well, now many states are moving to ban the chemicals in these herbal blends.

From member station KCUR in Kansas City, Missouri, Elana Gordon reports.

(Soundbite of coffee shop)

Unidentified Man: Hey, how are you doing?

Ms. LISA LAMOUSE(ph): You have any K2?

Unidentified Man: Yeah.

ELANA GORDON: Inside places like Coffee Wonk in Kansas City, Missouri, customers frequently shell out $30 for a tiny package for incense. It's called K2, as in the second highest mountain in the world and it's clearly labeled: Not for human consumption. That second high is something of an inside joke. The blend of flowers and herbs is laced with chemicals that attempt to mimic the effects of marijuana. Lisa Lamouse is buying some during her lunch break today. She says she uses K2 to relax.

Ms. LISA LAMOUSE: I can have a glass of wine and a bowl of K2 in a pipe, and I'm good.

GORDON: Not everyone who tries K2 likes it. Side effects can range from elevated heart rates to hallucinations, sending some users to the hospital. The fact that K2 is legal is hard even for some users to believe. Micah Riggs, who owns Coffee Wonk, says transactions with customers can sometimes be a little awkward.

Mr. MICAH RIGGS (Owner, Coffee Wonk): Well, first come in, people would be, like, K2, you know, they won't even say it. Like, if you're going to act like you're doing something criminal, I'll guarantee you they're going to make this illegal. This isn't illegal. Please, say, like, please say K2.

GORDON: But as Riggs predicts, K2 may not be here for long.

Mr. RIGGS: This is (unintelligible) crime up.

GORDON: Deputy Tom Erickson is with the sheriff's office in Johnson County, Kansas.

Mr. TOM ERICKSON (Deputy, Johnson County, Kansas): Hello.

GORDON: He leads me down a hallway to a bright room filled with microscopes and other lab equipment. He's been pushing for a statewide ban on K2. He says it was in this lab that officers first took a closer look at the chemical makeup of the incense. Erickson says in less than a year's time, K2's popularity has exploded.

Mr. ERICKSON: It went from, you know, basically the only people using it were some probationers not wanting to get caught, and all of a sudden it became into the mainstream.

GORDON: Tom Erickson is worried about the potential abuse of K2. It's not regulated by the FDA or the Drug Enforcement Administration, so its potency likely varies. But the compounds commonly used in it are known. They're called JWH-018 and JWH-073.

Dr. JOHN W. HUFFMAN (Chemistry, Clemson University): JWH are my initials.

GORDON: Chemist John W. Huffman developed the compounds over a decade ago at Clemson University. He says the chemical structures of his compounds are completely different from THC, the active ingredient in marijuana. But they do function in similar ways and less are likely needed to produce psychoactive reactions. Still, Huffman says the compounds were developed as part of an academic exercise and weren't ever meant to be smoked.

Dr. HUFFMAN: Who knows if they're safe? Who knows if they're toxic? Who knows what the long-term effects are? It's just not known.

GORDON: Regardless, someone somewhere caught wind of Hoffman's research and developed herbal blends like K2. They've been popular in Europe for a few years, and countries including Germany and the U.K. have outlawed them. The Kansas legislature recently approved a ban. The National Conference of State Legislatures says once it's signed into law, Kansas will become the first state in the U.S. to make the chemicals in K2 illegal. Missouri and Tennessee are also considering legislation.

Ethan Nadelmann is director of the Drug Policy Alliance, a national group advocating for alternative drug policies.

Mr. ETHAN NADELMANN (Director, Drug Policy Alliance): By and large, there's this tendency among legislators in the U.S. and sometimes other countries that when they hear of a new drug out there, their first instinct is to criminalize it.

GORDON: Nadelmann says while smoking K2 may not be a good idea, criminalizing it could have unintended consequences. But with Kansas likely to do just that, those craving what its users say is a legal high similar to marijuana, will soon have to go somewhere else to find it.

For NPR News, I'm Elana Gordon in Kansas City.

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