July 22, 2010 News » Cover Story

Incense nonsense 

Anyone can buy a new and little-understood drug called K2 — even your kids

The kid (and he does look young) behind the counter at Freakys knows exactly what I'm asking for.

He smirks a little in the dim light of the Colorado Springs head shop — perhaps I don't look the part — and points past the hand-blown glass pipes, bubblers and bongs, to what appears to be single-serving packages of soy sauce and sports drink mix.

This, apparently, is the "incense" selection.

"Is this stuff pretty popular?" I ask.

Uh, yeah.

"Don't people smoke this?"

I raise my eyebrow and throw the kid a knowing grin. He takes a step back from the counter and stares at his shoes, grinning sheepishly.

Uh, yeah. But they're not supposed to. It's illegal to misuse the incense, he tells me. (Actually, it isn't in Colorado. But no matter.)

He hands me one of the plastic packets. It's marked with an image of a Colorado license plate with the words "Colorado Chronic" emblazoned across the front. Huh.

"How much is this?"

$21.48. For 1.7 grams. Of incense.

I pay the kid the money.

Back at the office, we tear open the pouch. The contents look a little like crushed marijuana bud from a distance, but up close they're clearly tiny, dried leaves of some plant. The stuff smells sort of fantastic.

My boss calls it "lemony." My other boss detects hints of fennel. A co-worker is reminded of fine tobacco. I think the stuff smells like chamomile and honey.

We stare at it. Prod it.

But we don't smoke it.

Earning the hype?

On March 4, Newsweek ran an article called "Fake-Pot Panic" that mocked "breathless news reports" across the nation about a newish, little-understood, and mostly legal drug that's often known by the brand name K2.

"Maybe you even caught a Missouri detective's panicked prediction that K2 is 'going to end up killing somebody,'" the article chided. "As far as we know, though, it hasn't. Why is it suddenly getting all this attention?"

Three months later, David Rozga, an Iowa 18-year-old, smoked K2, became delusional and anxious, and shot himself to death.

The good-looking, amicable boy, who loved playing music in church and was a huge fan of the Green Bay Packers, was planning to attend the University of Northern Iowa starting in August. According to the Des Moines Register, a panicked Rozga told a friend he was "going to hell" before he headed home and ended his life on June 6.

For now, we'll set that aside and preserve the spirit of Newsweek's question. Why is this suddenly getting all this attention?

Well, first, it appears to be getting a lot more popular. Last year, poison control centers across the country got a grand total of 13 calls about K2. As of July 19, this year there have been 724 calls coming from 47 states.

Second, no one knows all the ingredients in K2. It's not a natural product; the herbs in it get sprayed with chemicals — apparently manufactured in China, Europe and the Cayman Islands — and then are sold as incense. Yes, many people report smoking K2 and having an innocuous high, much like what pot provides. But the type of high experienced depends on how the body reacts to whatever chemicals are in this unregulated and untested product. And several have been found.

Finally, there's this little issue: A 15-year-can't buy alcohol, he can't buy cigarettes, he can't even get into an R-rated movie without parental permission. But he can walk into a store — we found five that sell it in five minutes worth of phone calls — and buy K2, a drug that might put his life in danger.

"We had a 15-year-old that was going to jump out of a fifth-story window because he thought it was something else," Dr. Anthony Scalzo says. "It's only a matter of time."

Scalzo, a toxicologist at Saint Louis University in Missouri, directs the Missouri Regional Poison Control Center at SSM Cardinal Glennon Children's Medical Center and is considered a leading expert on K2. He's seen the results of the K2 craze, which has hit the Midwest particularly hard, and the doctor says the symptoms his patients are experiencing are troubling. Sky-high heart rates are common, and he's seen patients' blood pressure as high as 200/106 (well into stage 2 hypertension). K2 users have also had hallucinations, paranoia, fever, tremors and intense anxiety. In fact, some patients have required several doses of anxiety medication to control their symptoms, and one panicked woman complained that she couldn't move her body.

About a year ago, when Scalzo first began fielding calls about bad highs on K2, the callers were usually teenage boys and young men. Now, there's no one demographic. The aging yuppie looking to relive her '60s doping days is just as likely to pick up a pouch as an experimenting teenager.

"The typical story we get is, 'We bought it at the Ace gas station or the bait and tackle shop," Scalzo says. "And we thought it was a safe alternative."

Smoke and mirrors

K2. Spice. Colorado Chronic. Black Mamba. Fake Weed. Genie. Voodoo. Zohai. FIYA. Blaze. RedXDawn.

A dose by any of these names is, well .... no one's quite sure, actually. This stuff isn't regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and there's no standards applied to its production. Anything could be in there.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency says it's found that those packets usually contain "unknown plant materials that have been laced with trace to low amounts of HU-210, CP-47,497, and/or JWH-018." (It states that other drugs may be used in the products as well.) Here's a brief rundown of those chemicals:

• HU-210 was created by scientists at the Hebrew University in Israel around 1988 for experimental purposes, according to the DEA. It's 100 to 800 times as potent as THC (tetrahydrocannabinol, the part of pot that gets you high).

• The DEA says JWH-018 was invented by researchers at a university in South Carolina around 1975 for experimental purposes, though all other reports say it was invented in the mid-'90s by organic chemist John W. Huffman at South Carolina's Clemson University. It's four to five times as potent as THC.

• The DEA didn't provide a description of CP-47,497. But Calvina Fay, executive director of the Drug Free America Foundation and Save our Society From Drugs, wrote in a March CNN opinion article that it was created by a drug company in the 1980s for research purposes. It is, she says, 3 to 28 times as potent as THC.

Mike Turner, a special agent with the DEA's Denver branch, says the DEA considers K2 "a drug of concern," though it has thus far not pushed to outlaw it. Right now, the DEA is just trying to collect data on what's in K2 and how dangerous it is.

"No matter what we think is in there, unless it's analyzed, you don't know what you're ingesting or what strength it is, and we're seeing in some parts of the country, kids are having to be hospitalized," he says. "[Parents should] make sure their kids know that this is definitely not something for [them] to play around with."

A scientific essay, "Spice: A never ending story?" had similar observations. Published in 2009 in Forensic Science International, following Germany's ban of K2, it states:

"The producers use chemicals with likely psychoactive properties but without any knowledge of clinical data or hazardous consequences for the consumer. All compounds introduced into the market, lack any published in vivo testing even in animal models. Only limited data on the pharmacological and cannabimimetic properties of CP 47,497 in animal models and the metabolism of JWH-015 in rat liver microsomes are available."

Dr. Alvin Bronstein, medical director of the Denver-based Rocky Mountain Poison and Drug Center, says he's worried about the effects of the active ingredients of K2, but he's also concerned about the inactive ingredients — the mysterious plant material.

"I don't think people realize that they're inhaling different herbs and flavorings that were never meant to be inhaled in this manner," he says. "I don't know what it's going to do long-term to people's lungs."

And what's actually in K2 may not be the only problem. Dr. Bob Melamede, a microbiology professor at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and founder of Cannabis Science, a biotech company that develops pharmaceutical cannabis products, says what's not in K2 could also be an issue. In marijuana, he explains, many chemicals are present, and they have complex interactions in the body, giving the user distinct effects, such as calmness or hunger. By comparison, drugs like K2 only mimic a single part of marijuana — THC — so the body's reaction is likely to be different, which may be why K2 users are sometimes very anxious.

"Pot is, in general, safer and more broad-acting," Melamede explains. "The plant is not simply THC, it happens to be a whole composite of chemicals."

While K2 — or Spice as it was first commonly known — remains legal throughout most of the United States (where it showed up years ago), it is now banned through much of Europe and is also illegal in a smattering of U.S. counties and municipalities. North Dakota, Kansas, Louisiana, Tennessee, Georgia, Kentucky, Missouri and Alabama have laws or pending laws banning it, and other states are working on outlawing it, including Iowa, where Rozga died.

Interestingly, around 20 states — Colorado included — already outlaw cannabis synthetics. Bryan Gogarty, a prosecutor at the 4th Judicial District Attorney's Office, explains those laws don't affect K2, because, while the new drug mimics THC, it isn't similar enough to it on a molecular level to be covered by existing law.

Buy locally?

Colorado Springs police spokesman Sgt. Steve Noblitt had never heard of K2 before my call.

He's not alone. The name "K2" didn't immediately ring any bells with District Attorney Dan May, either (though clearly Gogarty, one of his prosecutors, knew what it was). Spokespersons for Memorial and Penrose-St. Francis hospitals checked with their emergency room staffs for this story; none had heard of K2. Teri Lawrence, supervisor for El Paso County Community Detox Facility, said she'd yet to have a patient admit to using K2. Likewise, Jennifer Rivera, a therapist and executive director of the El Paso and Teller Counties Alliance for Drug Endangered Children, didn't know a thing about K2.

But Rivera's teenage son did. When asked, the boy purportedly told his mom, "It really messes kids up."

And here, a pattern seems to emerge. The people society views as "helpers" — law enforcement, treatment programs, medical professionals, parents — seem largely unaware of K2 in the Springs. It's the shop owners, teenagers and drug users who treat it like yesterday's news. (According to some sources, K2 is also popular with military personnel who must undergo regular drug tests. Fort Carson representatives did not return Indy phone calls or e-mails seeking comment — but some branches of the military, including the Air Force, have prohibited K2.)

Adam Leech, owner of vintage shop the Leechpit and an Indy columnist, says he was confused at first when people started calling his shop asking if he carried "spice." He doesn't. But the calls keep coming.

Kathi Matthews, director of Pikes Peak Behavioral Health Group's Adult Substance Abuse Program, says she doesn't know a lot about K2. But her patients sure seem to know what it is.

"We've had some discussion about it in group, because group members have brought it up," she says.

All of which may lend credence to a statement that detox's Lawrence made: "Just because we haven't heard of it doesn't mean it's not out there and becoming an epidemic problem in our community."

Of course, no one knows that better than Michael Rozga. He talked to his late son David about everything he knew of that could hurt him. But he didn't know to warn his son about K2. And now he's worried that other unsuspecting parents across the country may wake up to the nightmare he's now facing — losing a child to a drug they've never heard of.

"How do you talk to them about something you know nothing about?" he asks.

Cat and mouse

It would seem that the solution to the K2 issue is easy: Outlaw it.

Laws banning K2 have a way of flying through governmental bureaucracy at record speed. As one can imagine, there just isn't political will to defend $30 "incense" that sends kids to hospitals.

But, wait, there is one little problem.

Remember that scientific study from Forensic Science International? That article came out shortly after Germany banned the chemicals in K2. And it noted the following: "Our analysis demonstrated that just 4 weeks after the prohibition took effect a multitude of second generation products were flooding the market. The speed of introduction of new products and the use of JWH-073 as a substitute for JWH-018 not only showed that the producers are well aware of the legal frameworks, but that they likely anticipated the prohibition and already had an array of replacement products on hand."

Outlaw one drug, and another one pops up to replace it. Just like that.

Kansas was one of the first states to ban K2's chemicals. Its laws went into effect four months ago, on March 18. On March 11, Wichita's KWCH-TV reported "shops that sold K2 are ready with something new."

According to the news report, the replacement drug mirrored K2 almost precisely, but was derived from the South African Canna plant and was legal.

So what's the solution? Well, people like Melamede and the like-minded Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), will tell you that the solution is simply to make pot legal — eliminating the market for replacement drugs that doctors like Scalzo and Bronstein believe are more dangerous than the natural stuff.

"The appeal [of K2] is that it's not illegal," St. Pierre says.

Others, however, think there's merit in simply making dangerous drugs illegal as they arise and trying to educate people on the hazards of abusing drugs. The DEA's Turner says that if a national law went into place banning K2, it would outlaw certain chemicals found in the product, as well as their close cousins — meaning it might be a bit of a challenge to get copycat products on the shelf. (Molecularly dissimilar products that had the same effects, however, would still be legal.)

And yet, this constant need to ban ever-new designer drugs — what Scalzo describes as a "cat-and-mouse game" — might be a losing battle. After all, these days huge numbers of kids are abusing drugs they pull out of the cupboard or medicine drawer of their own homes, everything from pain pills to glue. And the drug most people still consider one of the worst of this generation — methamphetamine — is often made from items that can be purchased at any drug store.

The simple truth is: You can't ban everything. Even a DEA agent knows that.

"You just hope," Turner says with a sigh, "that these kids can get past a certain age without trying some of this stuff."


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