K2: Easily accessible substance that mimics marijuana - and is legal - sold in Ann Arbor
An easily accessible substance that mimics marijuana is sold in Ann Arbor and at head shops across the country - and there's not much law enforcement authorities can do about it.
Called K2 - or "Spice," Genie" and "Zohai" - it 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.
Kelley McCall | The Associated Press
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.
In Ann Arbor, the mixture is sold inside theÂ Stairway to HeavenÂ shop on South State Street. For between $7 and $18, a person who is older than 18 can purchase an ounce of the herbal substance that resembles green kitchen spices.
"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.
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.
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 by 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.
Locally, spokespeople from the Ann Arbor Police Department and the University of Michigan Department of Public Safety said they weren't familiar with the substance.
And if no regulations exist at this point, said U-M police spokeswoman Diane Brown, educating local emergency room doctors, substance abuse counselors and policeÂ about the herb's appearance and effects is about all that can be done.
Police in Missouri and Kansas said they've become aware of K2 in recent weeks.Â The federal Drug Enforcement Administration has classified it a "drug or chemical of concern."
"A 10-year-old child could walk into a head shop and buy it," said West Plains Detective Shawn Rhoads.Â
Conner Moore, 20, 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.
"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. There's really no sites out there that says what is in K2."
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 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.Â
"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.
By the Associated Press and Tina Reed of AnnArbor.com.