By Jeff Lehr
Recent retail availability in Joplin of a legal synthetic form of marijuana, known as K2, appears to be shrinking in the face of a possible government crackdown.
K2, or Spice as it is most often called, has been available in recent months at some tobacco stores and at least one head shop in Joplin. But local retailers now seem to be voluntarily discontinuing sales.
The product, a mix of herbs and spices sprayed with a synthetic compound similar to THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, has been commonly sold as incense. But buyers have been smoking it to obtain a high similar to marijuana.
Kelly Maddy, president of the Joplin Chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said the herbs and spices in a package of K2 are not what get smokers high. It’s the chemical with which they are treated.
“It’s not a natural (cannabinoid) like marijuana,” Maddy said. “It’s a research chemical.”
The chemical interacts with receptors in the brain in a manner similar to THC. But K2 users test clean for THC, making it appealing to some people who face drug tests in the workplace or others on court-ordered probation, Maddy said.
He said some people who have tried K2 tell him that it differs from marijuana in at least two respects. The high lasts just 15 to 30 minutes. Maddy said K2 users also have reported experiencing feelings of anxiety and paranoia that they associate with first-time use of marijuana; such feelings tend to disappear with repeated use of pot.
K2’s ingredients are not yet regulated in the U.S., although they are banned in Europe.
The popularity of K2 use in the Joplin area remains open to debate.
Cpl. Larry Stout, of the Jasper County Drug Task Force, said he has seen it pop up only a couple of times in task force operations.
“Because it’s not illegal, we’re not chasing it,” Stout said. “So we’re not seeing much of it.”
He said pot smokers have told task force members that K2 is not as good as marijuana and tends to be higher priced. A 3-gram package of K2 is sold in stores for anywhere from $20 to $50. A head shop on West 20th Street was selling it for $30 plus tax until about a week ago when the operator said he was discontinuing sales.
What makes Stout think that not that many people are using it locally is that he has not fielded a single complaint from parents about it. He said students he teaches in high-school classes have yet to raise it as a topic.
A tobacco store operator in Joplin told the Globe that he sold K2 in December but discontinued sales once he learned that people were buying it to get high. He said it had been presented by a supplier as a popular form of incense. He said sales were brisk before he learned how customers were using it. He said he stopped carrying it because he did not wish to take the risks that type of use presented.
Paranoia about sales among retailers may have increased earlier this month with a raid of a supplier and a store in Lawrence, Kan., by federal, state and local authorities.
The owner of Bouncing Bear Botanicals, which supplied a head shop called Sacred Journey with K2, was arrested on multiple counts of distribution of controlled substances, such as mescaline and lysergic acid amide, which is related to LSD. Authorities seized more than $700,000 from the supplier’s business and bank accounts, and K2 was pulled off the shelves of Sacred Journey.
The supplier’s lawyer maintains that his client was operating a legitimate botanical plant business.
Tom Gasparoli, a spokesman for the Food and Drug Administration, told the Globe that K2 has come to the federal agency’s attention. He provided the following agency statement: “K2 is a product with unknown safety risks. The agency has preliminary reports of adverse events and is concerned about the use and abuse of this product. FDA generally considers products like this to be illegal street drug alternatives.”
He said the agency’s study of the product, including any complaints or reports of adverse events, could be followed by action from either a safety or a criminal standpoint.
Maddy, the local NORML president, described the flap over K2 as “another unfortunate byproduct of the prohibition of marijuana.” He said that if concern about a lack of regulation leads to criminalization, K2 is likely to wind up on the street as “just another black market revenue source for organized crime and drug dealers.”
He said he finds it unfortunate that just two weeks after the chief justice of the Missouri Supreme Court warned lawmakers that the greatest waste of state resources is “over-incarceration” of nonviolent offenders, the Missouri Legislature is pondering making possession of yet another substance a felony.
Reported surges in K2 sales have prompted state legislators in Missouri, Kansas and Oklahoma to seek to criminalize the product. The Kansas Legislature on Thursday wrapped up action on a bill outlawing the synthetic drug and sent the measure to Gov. Mark Parkinson.
By Jeff Lehr
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