The Suburbanite
  • K2 incense: Some call it synthetic marijuana

  • Legal, hard to detect in a lab test and available to customers of all ages, K2 incense is making those who smoke it “high,” sick and possibly even killing people, according to lab experts, poison control experts and dozens of politicians. Even marijuana aficionados don’t approve of this form of what labs are calling synthetic marijuana, which Ohio politicians seek to make illegal.

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  • It’s legal and readily available at local convenience stores, gas stations and head shops.
    Even kids can buy it, and it’s also virtually undetectable by the average employment drug-screen test.
    Yet, if Ohio legislators have their way, K2 incense, which comes in a variety of aromas called “flavors,” would be labeled a felony — because people are smoking it, and they are getting sick.
    Several states already have outlawed K2. And several more states are considering making it illegal after people reportedly died after smoking it.
    The substance has been blamed for the July death of a 28-year-old mother of two from Middletown, Ind. The Aug. 6 death of Dominique Darrell Tate, 19, of Dallas, Texas, and the June 6 death of David Rozga, 18, of Indianola, Iowa, are thought to have been caused by the drug. Rozga reportedly smoked K2, suffered a panic attack, then shot himself to death.
    “Kids look at it like marijuana, and it’s much more serious than that,” said Dr. Christopher Long, a forensic toxicologist who heads the toxicology lab at the St. Louis University in Missouri, a state where K2 has been banned. “It does have definite cardiac action, which marijuana really doesn’t. And there have been suicides after use.”
    At least a dozen other countries have banned K2, and 13 states have deemed it illegal.
    Ohio is not on that list.
    Not yet.
    More people are showing up in hospitals after smoking K2.
    Since early May, Ohio’s Cincinnati-based poison control center has received 16 K2-related calls reporting rapid heart rates, nausea, vomiting, confusion “and other psychiatric symptoms,” said Rob Goetz, a poison information specialist. Seven of those calls came from hospitals, two of which were in Stark County.
    The number of people with K2-related illnesses could be much higher.
    “If you’re a physician in an emergency room treating 100 cases of this, you’re not likely to call poison control (requesting information),” Goetz said.
    WHAT IS K2?
    Goetz said poison control agents originally thought K2 was “sort of like an herbal blend meant to mimic marijuana.
    “It turns out it’s a mixture of herbs, sprayed or laced with a substance that is like THC but may not be chemically the same. We call them synthetic cannabinoids.”
    The manmade or synthetic marijuana does not contain THC or tetrahydrocannabinol, the main psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, according to the website for the National Institute on Drug Abuse, www.drugabuse.gov.
    Instead, K2 is an unidentified plant that is dried, crumbled and sprayed with the chemical JWH-018, which Goetz said “has at least four times the potency of THC.” The chemical is named for Dr. John W. Huffman, a Clemson University professor credited with creating it for his research on the effects of cannabinoids on the human brain.
    Page 2 of 5 - Some websites advertising JWH-018 and K2 incense say the product is manufactured in Korea and China, but they do not provide details. One website includes a waiver that requires a buyer’s signature acknowledging “exact ingredients lists of products are known only to the product manufacturer.”
    Jay Spencer of the Canton/Stark County Crime Lab said the dried plant onto which JWH-018 is sprayed hasn’t been identified.
    “K2 has been around for awhile, but it’s newer to this area,” Spencer said, adding that his office’s exposure to the drug has been “pretty limited.”
    Canton police saw their first case involving K2 during the Pro Football Hall of Fame Ribs Burnoff in August.
    Michael B. Saeger, 21, of Louisville, was arrested as he left the burnoff. He was smoking as he walked in the 100 block of Fawcett Court NW when Canton Police Officer J. Hartzell saw him. Believing the stuff Saeger had in a plastic bag was marijuana, Hartzell cited Saeger for misdemeanor marijuana possession. But the crime lab determined it was K2.
    “It was definitely our office’s first experience with this drug,” said Assistant Prosecutor Anthony Flex. The charge against Saeger was dropped on Oct. 14. Flex warned Saeger that an officer could refile the charge as inhaling harmful intoxicants, also a misdemeanor.
    The Ohio House of Representatives Bill 544 and Ohio Senate Bill 275 address synthetic cannabinoids called K2. Both bills were introduced into the 128th General Assembly on June 2. The criminal penalties would equal those for marijuana.
    As of Oct. 19, the Senate bill has been assigned to the Judiciary Criminal Justice committee. No hearings have been scheduled, according to the legislature’s website.
    The House has been in recess, so its bill hasn’t been assigned to any committee, and it is unlikely to be heard by the end of the year, according to the state legislator who presented it.
    State Rep. Margaret Ruhl, a Republican from Mount Vernon, introduced the bill into the House with another Republican, Rep. Dave Burke, of Marysville. Ruhl said she learned about K2 when children in her district began passing out at school after smoking K2. Her district includes Knox and Morrow counties and parts of Richland and Ashland counties.
    Burke, who is a pharmacist, represents Logan and Union counties and part of Marion County.
    A Mount Vernon assistant prosecutor told Ruhl the local school system was having a problem with “Spice,” another name for K2. Students smoking Spice before class suffered elevated heart rates, then passed out, Ruhl said, adding that standard drug tests conducted on them at the hospital also came back negative.
    Two weeks later, four more K2-related illnesses occurred — three in Mount Vernon city schools and one at a rock music festival in the Fredricktown area. Then, during her participation in a call-in radio program, Ruhl received a call from a man who complained his employees weren’t showing up for work after smoking K2.
    Page 3 of 5 - A few weeks after Ruhl introduced the bill, she was at a hospital having blood drawn when her nurse brought up K2. “The nurse said, ‘You have to do something about this. My kids are smoking this stuff, and I can’t stop them. I’ve threatened them with everything: no TV ...’ Her kids are 15 and 17 years old,” Ruhl said.
    “It’s incense. Anybody can buy this stuff.”
    Even in Stark County.
    Saeger said he bought his K2 at a tattoo shop in Canton. He had been smoking the stuff “quite a bit” for about a month before he was caught and didn’t realize how much more he suddenly was smoking.
    “It’s addicting. You’ll have to wean yourself off of it. I definitely do not recommend using it,” Saeger said.
    The only “side effect” he experienced was an extreme “high,” he said.
    Saeger said he had been drawn to K2 by friends who assured him it couldn’t be detected in urine tests.
    The chemical in K2, JWH-018 is detectable in a urine test — but only a specific test.
    “(The sample) would have to be sent to a forensic laboratory with a request for a K2 analysis,” Long said.
    Most employers seek drug tests from a regular commercial lab, which looks for the more typical substances, such as amphetamines, cocaine, marijuana, PCP and opiates.
    Most of those labs don’t test for and won’t detect JWH-018, Long said.
    The Repository spotted packages of K2 in at least four Stark County area stores. They were either locked inside a glass cabinet, hung on the wall behind the front counter or distributed from a bucket of free samples. One store had a sign saying only people 18 and older could access the section where K2 could be found.
    At a Perry Township store, small, clear plastic, lip gloss-sized containers of K-2 cost $15 a gram. (A single gram equals .035 or less than four-tenths of an ounce.)
    In a Canton Township store, a 3-gram bag of K2 comes in five or six “flavors” and sells for $30.
    A Canton store sold 3-gram packages and small glass vials of K2 for $20 apiece. “The manufacturer is trying to blow out his inventory because this stuff’s going to be illegal in Ohio come January,” a store clerk told one customer, who noted that the price had been reduced from a prior visit.
    A sign hung on the locked glass case covering it: “Not for human consumption.”
    “You smoke it. It’s really good,” the clerk said. “But it’s like anything else. Every time you get something good, the government wants to take it away.” She explained the sign was the result of police visits to the store.
    Page 4 of 5 - MINORS WITH MONEY
    Legally, customers under 18 can buy it, although some local merchants insist they won’t sell K2 to minors.
    “We’ve chosen to make sure (K2 customers) are 18. But since it is an incense and it is legal, I imagine anybody can buy it. Kids can buy regular incense,” said Mike Long, manager of Puff-n-Stuff novelties on Cleveland Avenue SW.
    He said that while K2 is advertised as an incense, he knows people are smoking it.
    “It’s mood enhancing; it puts you in a better mood. With such a dismal economy and everything else in Stark County that’s so depressing, it’s kind of nice to have something uplifting,” Long said.
    He said he has not heard of anyone suffering any negative effects from K2, adding, “It’s quite a good seller. We’ve only been carrying it for three months. It has become more and more popular.”
    Long advises customers “if they’re going to smoke it, to make sure they don’t drive or operate machinery, that they do it in a relaxing, at-home atmosphere to see how it affects them. I’d hate to hear about anybody having physical harm done to them or someone else.”
    The chemical JWH-018 is available online. An Internet connection and a credit card can yield a shipment from one supplier for $45 for a single gram, or in bulk (40 grams) for nearly $20 a gram. That website advertises “discreet packaging” with free shipping for orders of more than $90, and requires customers be at least 18 years old.
    Another website requires buyers to sign a waiver when ordering. The customer must assume “full liability for punitive damages” and personal injuries, assure that he or she is not a law enforcement officer or government agent and agree not to contact the website for any other reason than to check on the status of a shipment more than 10 days late. That website also warns buyers not to inhale smoke, snort powders or drink liquids.
    “This is ridiculous because people are polluting themselves with these ‘toys.’ If they would legalize the natural herb, they wouldn’t have these problems,” said Dawn Dunlap, a Massillon native and president of the Central Ohio NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws). “I personally have never done any of that K2 stuff because it scares me. I don’t know what’s in it. Most people who do use marijuana want it to be natural, to get away from chemicals.”
    Her organization, Ohio NORML and Ohioans for Medical Marijuana, held a Medical Marijuana Compassion Act rally Sept. 16, and K2 wasn’t discussed “because to us, that’s just junk. It’s not healthy; it’s not good for you. It can’t be. And they’re marketing it, so what’s in it? They won’t say.
    Page 5 of 5 - “It’s not even a proper plant. It’s an incense. That would be like smoking frankincense.”
    And it’s not safe, according to WebMD.com.
    “JWH-018 and its many cousins, for example, have a chemical structure shared with known cancer-causing agents.
    JWH-018 inventor Huffman, puts it bluntly. ‘It is like Russian roulette to use these drugs. We don’t know a darn thing about them for real,’ ” the website said. Huffman could not be reached by The Repository for comment.
    Effects of K2
    The effects are physical and psychological.
    Science Daily’s website — www.sciencedaily.com — says K2 impacts the central nervous system, “causing severe, potentially life-threatening hallucinations and, in some cases, seizures.” Symptoms include rapid heart rate, elevated blood pressure, vomiting, nausea, tremors and seizures.
    Tuscarawas County sheriff’s deputies last week issued a news release asking parents and school officials to be aware of the abuse of K2, saying it is marketed in Korea and China as a plant growth stimulant and “looks like a cross between tobacco and marijuana.”
    “This product however is said to create a highly stimulated intoxicated feeling that is much the opposite of marijuana,” the news release said. “Some users have described the high as “a very intense rush.”
    Assistant county prosecutor Michael Ernest said that smoking the incense is “absolutely illegal” and anyone caught doing it can be charged with abusing a harmful intoxicant, a first-degree misdemeanor charge lodged against people for “huffing” paint. A second conviction makes it a felony.
    Deputies there say they also are beginning to see other types of herbal synthetic drugs. They’ve purchased a white powder resembling finely granulated table sugar and going by the street name of “speed powder.” Although it contains no narcotics, “the effects are said to be a great intense short-lived high similar to cocaine followed by a severe headache and nausea,” the news release said.
    Deputies asked that anyone aware of abuse of the products to call the Tuscarawas County Drug Task Force at (330) 339-7713.

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