K2: Scary Drug or Another Drug Scare?

Jack Shafer, the media columnist at Slate, is famous for pointing out "bogus trend stories," especially those involving drug use. Of them, he once said, "Whenever I fall into a funk over the press corps' abysmal coverage of illicit drugs, I console myself with the knowledge that, as awful as the coverage is, it's always been that way." He's even blasted drug coverage in sister publications The Washington Postand NEWSWEEK.

What would he make of all the recent stories about K2, or "fake marijuana," which is essentially a legal, smokable form of psychoactive potpourri? Breathless news reports about the substance have been popping up all over in the last few days. If you live in Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Michigan, Missouri, Kansas, or Wisconsin, you've probably seen one. Maybe you even caught a Missouri detective's panicked prediction that K2 is "going to end up killing somebody." As far as we know, though, it hasn't. Why is it suddenly getting all this attention?

There's a legitimate news hook for some of these stories: Kansas became the first state to ban K2 last week, and there are similar bills pending in Nebraska and North Dakota. But why the states are banning the stuff now is unclear. K2 isn't new. It's been around since the mid-'90s, when John Huffman, a Clemson University chemist, synthesized a substance he called JWH-018. The chemical was structurally similar to THC, the active ingredient in pot, and apparently quite a bit more potent. (There's a good explanation of the science here.) Like its illicit cousin, JWH-018 made users mellow and euphoric. Pot enthusiasts picked up on Huffman's work, mixed or bought batches of JWH-018 themselves, and started spraying it onto varying mixes of dried herbs, flowers, and tobacco leaves. The result was K2—a.k.a. "Spice," "Genie," or "Zohai"—which quickly caught on in head shops and on the Internet as a way to get high without breaking the law. Although the federal Drug Enforcement Agency has listed K2 as a "drug or chemical of concern," it isn't officially "scheduled," and that makes it legal (unless you're buying it in Kansas).

Is JWH-018 dangerous? No one really knows. There's not a lot of research on what it does to mice and almost nothing on what it does to humans. Its effects shouldn't be that different from marijuana's, but then, we could argue all day about how dangerous marijuana is. Even researchers who have found that pot use has long-term detrimental effects, like the link to psychosis that was announced earlier this week, tend to qualify their statements by noting that the link is "by no means simple" and arguing that we need a lot more research.

Maybe there's been an explosion in K2 use, then, and that's what people are flipping out about? This story from Arizona quotes a smoke-shop owner saying that "the trend has just exploded in the last 60 days," but one guy in Phoenix does not a compelling data source make. In St. Louis, Anthony Scalzo, a pediatrician and toxicologist at Saint Louis University Hospital, says he's seen nearly 30 teenagers come through local ERs suffering from bad trips on K2 just in the last six weeks, but this is an aberration. Scalzo says he's spoken with his counterparts at poison-control centers in Atlanta, New Jersey, and New York City. Their recent case loads, respectively: 12, 2, and 0. And no one's tracking K2-related medical cases nationwide. There is a database, the National Poison Data System, that could. But Scalzo says, "It doesn't even have a code for K2."

More likely, the greater danger involved in buying K2 stems from the fact that it's an unregulated mixture of God knows what. "You don't know what you're getting," says Scalzo. "It's buyer-beware."

That leaves Scalzo very worried about the kids coming through the ERs in his area, because they aren't acting like you might expect a K2 user to act. "They're jacked up. They're agitated and anxious, sometimes delirious," Scalzo says. "And they're completely surprised by what has happened to them, because they were just expecting to get mellow." Scalzo also notes that cannabinoids (a fancy word for potlike chemicals) "have protective effects on the cardiovascular system, which again goes against the grain of what we are seeing with cardiovascular stress with K2." In other words, these kids' hearts are racing and their blood pressure is way up—which is exactly the opposite of what it should be on K2. All this, Scalzo says, "leads me to conclude that we may have a contaminant in the product."

Nobody wants to start a "bad batch" scare. So Scalzo is trying to find out through scientific means—rather than speculation—if there is indeed something toxic in some bags of K2 being sold in the Midwest. He recently sent an alert to Missouri ERs advising them that local K2 "may be tainted with an unidentified substance that is causing untoward adrenergic-like [i.e., stimulating] effects." It also says, "We do NOT suspect that the untoward adrenergic-like effects are due to [JWH-018]." Then it asks the ERs to collect urine samples from suspected K2 users. One problem: so far, most patients don't want to cooperate, which means that evidence will be slow to materialize. That won't stop newspapers or local TV stations, we suspect, from running sensationalist stories about the dangers of K2 in the meantime.