It comes in a little silver or multi-colored packet, sold as incense, and clearly marked "not for consumption." But enterprising folks are consuming the contents: usually an herbal concoction combined with synthetic chemical JWH-018, or, as it's known on the street, Spice or K2. The result is a dark-brown powder that's best smoked in a one-hitter. Word on the street is it provides a cannabis-like high. And it's legal in Massachusetts.
However, a recent wave of fear has washed over the US, and eight states — Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, North Dakota, and Tennessee — have outlawed the substance since January of this year.
Now here's the weird part: the DEA, emergency-room doctors, and even marijuana advocates agree that you really shouldn't be smoking it.
"I would never try [K2]," says Mike Cann, president of MassCann/NORML. "We have a plant [marijuana] that is non-toxic, and people are replacing it with something that has had no real research, and they don't know what it does to them. But because it's still legal here in Massachusetts, this is a chance to study it."
K2 "hasn't been studied," Rick Doblin, executive director of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) tells the Phoenix by phone. "The data's not there. At times of hysteria, situations are often hyped. From what we know, it's probably no more dangerous than marijuana, unless someone doses it improperly or it's used in combination with other drugs."
K2 is being described by the mainstream media as "synthetic pot." But why would anyone in Massachusetts bother with fake weed, when the penalties for smoking the real thing are so slim? According to Doblin and others interviewed for this article, it's this: "It doesn't show up on drug tests."
And that attribute, discrete from its legal status, may explain why K2 is catching on here, and nationwide. Since, obviously, not showing up on drug tests makes this over-the-counter incense extremely attractive to people in the military, athletes, and others who are drug tested regularly for their work — or because they are on probation or parole.
"This shows once again why drug testing doesn't stop drugs," Cann tells the Phoenix. "Drug testing pushes people away from less harmful drugs. It moves people to use drugs like alcohol, cocaine, and K2. Cannabis is a safer alternative to all three of those substances."
Incense or incendiary?
Rusty Payne, a spokesman for the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), agrees that K2 research must be done. "The medical and scientific community have to do their analysis," he tells the Phoenix from DEA headquarters in Washington, DC. "You have to determine the harm to the user and the potential of addiction. You need cases. You need samples — a lot of them. We're starting to get a lot, but we need to continue to look into this in order to make a sound decision, and that takes time. And there's no real timetable on that."
"We would classify K2 as a drug of concern," he continues. "People have no idea what they're putting in their bodies. There's a lot of mislabeling going on and there're a lot of unknown factors."