“Spice” or “K2,” is legally sold in stores as incense, but lawmakers in Baltimore County are taking action to get it off the market. County officials will vote in October on whether to ban the substance and make its possession and sale illegal. Baltimore County Councilman Kevin Kamenetz said he plans to introduce legislation in September and that he has support from other council members, parents, and local business owners. Under Kamenetz’s proposal anyone caught distributing or in possession of “spice” and similar compounds would face misdemeanor charges, a $500 fine and 60 days in jail. The product has already been banned in Ocean City, Md.

“Spice” is made by spraying dried herbs with JWH-018 or JWH-073, man-made compounds developed by researchers and sourced from countries such as China and Korea. When smoked and ingested they produce similar effects to THC – the active ingredient in marijuana – in the brain. The drug is sold in stores and online for about $20 per gram. One website touted the drug as an “herbal smoke blend” that is “intoxicating and extremely potent.”

A 2009 intelligence alert published by the Drug Enforcement Administration outlined similar compounds or synthetic cannabinoids such as HU-210 which they identified as 100 times more potent than marijuana. The synthetic marijuana was packaged under the brand names “Yucatan Fire,” “Genie,” and “Spice Gold.”

Dr. Matthew Johnson, who specializes in psychopharmacology at Johns Hopkins University, said very little is known about these compounds and how they affect the human brain. The long-term effects on the lungs after smoking these substances are also unknown. Currently they do not meet the safety requirements for study on humans. “It was decades before we figured out that tobacco is so harmful,” said Johnson in regards to the length of time it can take to understand how these compounds interact with the human body.

Johnson said side effects can include intense headaches, high blood pressure, increased heart rate, hallucination and vomiting. But these symptoms have also been reported as side effects of marijuana. This makes it hard for health and law enforcement officials to track its usage accurately. According to the DEA’s website, “Abuse is not monitored by any national drug abuse surveys.” The agency also said information on the user population is limited to online forums.

What makes the synthetic marijuana especially dangerous is, according to Johnson, the compounds affect the same brain receptors as THC. However the effects of JWH-018 are stronger than marijuana because “they are hitting the receptors at full throttle and marijuana is only putting the pedal half-way down,” he said. “We at least know that marijuana does not have a risk of lethal overdose. That may or may not be true for these substances.”