“Got any K2?” Nouri Moore, 19, asked, approaching the counter of an Asian-owned convenience store in northeast Washington, D.C.
A cashier at the Northeast Market located on the 1300 block of Mount Olivet Road, N.E., came to the counter, where a large basket sat, displaying the rainbow packages of the legal drug like candy.
“How much,” Moore asked?
“Ten dollar $15,” the cashier replied with a thick Asian accent.
“I’ll take a $10 bag,” Moore responded.
And just like that, a sale was made of a new drug, whose escalating popularity is prompting concern among lawmakers and law enforcement officials. Initially developed for research related to treatment of pain and the effects of cannabis on the brain, synthetic cannabinoids – commonly known as “Spice,” “K2,” “Genie,” “Yucatan Fire,” “Sence,” “Smoke,” “Skunk” and “Zohai,” when sprayed onto dried herbs — have become a popular legal alternative to marijuana. When smoked or ingested the chemically engineered substances, similar to THC—the active ingredient in marijuana—can produce a high similar to marijuana.
Though K2 is marketed as a “novelty herbal incense” or potpourri, and the product labels often read “not for human consumption,” abuse of these substances appears to be increasing.
The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) lists synthetic cannabinoids as “drugs of concern” on its website.
And locally, DC Metropolitan Assistant Police Chief Diane Groomes said police first purchased the drug in a cigar shop in the Adams Morgan community several months ago. “We’ve asked the Council to ban the substance,” said Groomes.
Some believe the Council has been slow in its response. K2 is made up of natural herbs such as canavalia rosea, clematis nuciferia, heima salicfolia, and ledum palustre. Many of these herbs are commonly used as blends for herbal cigarettes. The marijuana-like substance can now be found in carryouts, gas stations, convenience and liquor stores.
“It’s big business because it does not show up as ‘dirty urine’ and marijuana users are buying it like crazy,” said Keith Britton, 52, a drug monitor and life coach for recovering addicts. “We have lots of drug-like substances and paraphernalia being sold in almost every foreign-owned establishment located in the Black community. We get rid of one then another pops up.”
Tamrat Mehdin, 52, director of Little Ethiopia and recognized as a key leader among Ethiopian businessmen, said he is willing to set up meetings to discuss these issues. “Sure we want to make money, but it should not be at the demise of African Americans,” said Mehdin.
Aware of the situation, the Council has begun to take action. In July, D.C. Councilman Phil Mendelson (D-At-Large) presented legislation that placed K2 and similar substances on the controlled substance list which would make it illegal.
And other state lawmakers are acting quickly to curb the growing availability and use of these substances by passing laws to designate certain synthetic cannabinoids as controlled substances and outlaw their possession or distribution, according to The National Conference of State Legislatures.
Alabama, Tennessee, Louisiana, and Mississippi passed laws that made the possession, distribution and intent to distribute K2 subject to the same penalties as marijuana.
Kansas, Georgia, Missouri, and Arkansas passed legislation making it illegal under state law by banning the sale of the marijuana-like substance. Similar legislation is pending in New York, New Jersey, Illinois, Michigan and Ohio.
The Oregon Board of Pharmacy listed synthetic cannabinoid chemicals as controlled substances, thus making the sale and possession of these products illegal.
Kentucky passed laws that made possession of K2 a misdemeanor.
The Hawaii Narcotics Enforcement Division placed a temporary ban on the substance pending action by the Hawaii Legislature in the 2011 session.
In Idaho, an advisory committee is reviewing whether synthetic cannabinoids should be added to the list of controlled substances.
The American Association of Poison Control Centers reported, on its website, as the drug spreads, the number of emergency related calls have increased. Calls from individuals using the substance have been made to poison centers for symptoms ranging from racing heartbeat, elevated blood pressure to nausea. There also have been reports linking use of these drugs to hallucinations, seizures and even death.