November 24, 2010, Washington D.C.: Using its emergency powers, the Drug Enforcement Administration announced that it will temporarily ban five synthetic marijuana compounds,often known by brand names such as K-2 or Spice, effective in "no fewer than 30 days."
— from the DEA Website
This report was written in the last freewheeling days before the federal ban.
At first, it seemed like there wasn't much to this synthetic cannabis malarkey. Tasked by my editor with staking out the wilds of these new, legal "herbal incense" smoking products, I had duly hopped on my bike and gone out and plunked down a total of $20 plus tax for two anemic 1.5-gram sachets of two different brands of the stuff.
The deal went down at a shady, Vietnamese-run Montrose convenience store, Cypress Hill's "Hand on the Pump" blaring in my ears from my iPod as the product exchanged hands.
One of the bags went by "K-2 Blue" and the other was an allegedly mango-flavored concoction called "Spicy Green Herbal Mysteries." (Had I been so inclined, I could have also chosen Spice, Yucatan Fire, Solar Flare, or my favorite brand name, Happy Shaman Herbs. In addition to convenience stores and gas stations, head shops are gold mines for the stuff.)
The little sacks sat in a desk drawer for a while, but at a staff party in October, some co-workers and I twisted up a J of the K-2 Blue and fired it up. The effects were minimal, possibly only imaginary. I noticed, or thought I noticed, that the colors in Greek Village along lower West Gray might have seemed a little more vibrant on that warm Indian summer afternoon. And perhaps I was a little more amenable towards certain co-workers with whom I have had testy relationships. It was very forgettable, and it seemed like just another bogus legal "substitute" for an illegal drug, like Ecstasy's no-account little sister Eve back in the day.
Meanwhile, on a slow Friday afternoon a couple of weeks later at work, I happened upon the Herbal Mysteries Spicy Green and some leftover Zig Zags in my desk drawer. Oh well, I thought, let's give this crapola one last chance. Maybe different brands had different effects. That was what it said on the Internet, anyway, and we all know the Internet never lies.
There so happened to be a couple of friends of a co-worker on the premises, and these two guys, whom we'll call "Moises" and "Hector," expressed an interest in joining me.
Moises, a bespectacled, twentysomething Hispanic man with a shaven head, said he had a long and fruitful relationship with the "Kush" brand of synthetic marijuana. He had a little bag of it in his pocket even then. He said he smoked it just about every day.
Sure, he allowed, he would rather be smoking real weed, but he said he was subject to drug-testing at his job, and since this stuff didn't show up on his urinalysis, it was his only choice.
"It kinda relaxes you at night, or sometimes I smoke a little through the day," he said, and added that he was careful never to get too high at work. (He's a telemarketer.) "I smoke half of a little tiny joint, and they will last a good while. I don't do it in big amounts."
He said it was safe; he'd never had any problems with it, except for that one time... "I'd smoked some and I was driving, and I kinda nodded off, except instead of my head falling forward, it fell back."
He chuckled and shook his head. "I got carried away that time," he said.
Hmmm. Moises didn't look like the kind of guy who would fake a high. And why would anyone pretend to nod off like that behind the wheel? Maybe there was something to this after all.
The three of us adjourned to the parking lot behind the Houston Press building, right there across the street from the new downtown YMCA on the corner of Pease and Milam. We sparked up my poorly rolled joint of Spicy Green Herbal Mysteries. I could feel it hit, or "bind to my receptors" as the chemists would say, even before I exhaled the first lungful of odd-smelling smoke. I passed it to Moises, who passed it to Hector. And repeat. And repeat again. Conversation ground to a halt, as did time. A cop car slid south down Milam, about 100 feet from us.
"I wonder what would happen if he stopped and questioned us," wondered Hector aloud.
We chuckled and shook our heads. There wasn't a damn thing he could do. As these products are officially marketed as incense and labeled "Not for Human Consumption," there is no law, or at least no law in Houston (yet), against possessing or smoking them. We could just as easily have been toking on banana peels as far as the cops were concerned.
But to me, this stuff was far, far more potent than banana peels. (Yep, I once tried them too.) A few minutes later, my feet and hands had gone cold. I had major cottonmouth. And to put it simply, I was freakin' stoned.
I had an afternoon of work ahead of me, including, and this is kind of important, a taping with Channel 39, in which, for the pleasure of the Evening News viewership of the entire Greater Houston area, I was supposed to wax eloquent in front of the cameras about the rise and fall of the Richmond Strip.
It looked like we were gonna see how well I could, as they say in the pot-infused music business, work behind a load.
Within a month, most of the K-2 products on Houston store shelves will be classed as Schedule I drugs, a category the DEA reserves for the substances it regards as the most "unsafe," and "highly abused," "with no medical usage."
These compounds are to be banned for at least one year. "The American public looks to the DEA to protect its children and communities from those who would exploit them for their own gain," said DEA Acting Administrator Michele M. Leonhart in an official statement. "Makers of these harmful products mislead their customers into thinking that 'fake pot' is a harmless alternative to illegal drugs, but that is not the case. Today's action will call further attention to the risks of ingesting unknown compounds and will hopefully take away any incentive to try these products."
To call my experiences typical of the synthetic marijuana experience does not do the stuff, well..."justice" isn't quite the right word. Let's just say they didn't encapsulate the Russian roulette that is this phenomenon in total.
A former co-worker got into K-2 because he liked to get high and didn't live in Houston long enough to make a weed connection. He said he tried the stuff numerous times, and every experience differed wildly from the last, ranging from almost no effect to pleasant high to vivid, full-on hallucinations.
Another co-worker shared a spliff with this same man while out at a happy hour last month. The effects were dramatic. Although she is a very experienced partier, and says she was only a little tipsy from drinking, she vomited on the spot with little gastrointestinal warning and collapsed in a heap outside the bar. She says she simply could not move, much less get up.
Along with vomiting and hallucinations (and tremors, rapid heartbeat and increased blood pressure), K-2 has been reported to cause temporary paralysis, which she says describes exactly the condition she was in. (Eventually, she was able to muster the strength to dial up a friend to come collect her.)
So what is this stuff? It's hard to say. Until the upcoming ban was announced, synthetic marijuana was not regulated by the Drug Enforcement Administration nor the Food and Drug Administration nor any other government agency. The wide variance in effects could in part be explained by the fact that synthetic cannabis products are quite literally "mixed bags." As certain jurisdictions ban certain compounds, more and more new brands and concoctions pop up — even in Texas, where no state law prohibits K-2 yet, substances with names like K-3 or K-4 are starting to appear. But more on those adventures in modern chemistry later.
The official lists of ingredients on the packages sound like something from a Renaissance Faire or a dusty, leather-bound volume plucked from a top shelf at the Hogwarts library — "canavalia roses," "clematis vitalba," "nelumbo nucifera" and the like — but chemists will tell you the green leafy substances are immaterial; the agents that get you high are synthetics that most often originated in a lab at Clemson University in South Carolina.
Beginning in 1984, Clemson organic chemistry professor John W. Huffman started creating synthetic versions of THC (pot's active ingredient) for possible use in treating AIDS and multiple sclerosis and for possible application in chemotherapy regimens.
Over the next 20 years, Huffman's team created about 450 weed-mimicking compounds, all of which bear his initials (JWH) and a number. JWH-018, one of the five compounds banned by the DEA, is probably the most common compound in K-2 variants, but now some others are used that were developed elsewhere, notably the HU (originally from Israel's Hebrew University) class.
Eventually some of Huffman's recipes trickled onto the Internet, and by the middle of the last decade, the earliest recreational variants of his compounds were being sold in Germany. While Huffman realized that the misuse of his compounds was inevitable, the scientist could only shake his head. He recently told the journal LiveScience that some of his synthetics are ten times as powerful as THC. As for those poor fools who would partake of them, the 78-year-old Huffman says they are "potential winners of Darwin Awards" who would "do a service to humanity by removing themselves from the gene pool."
Also, he adds, very little testing has been done on humans, and since the few mice that were put through extensive JWH experiments were euthanized, the long-term effects are totally unknown, even on rodents, but some reports have hinted that some of the compounds contain carcinogens.
Even so, documented cases of K-2-related mayhem are hard to pin down. An Iowa teen, normal and well adjusted by all accounts, was said to have suddenly shot himself after indulging, and in August, a Dallas teen with a history of smoking the stuff died of a sudden heart attack that might have been attributable to K-2. (The toxicology report is still pending.)
But after reading dozens of articles and conducting numerous interviews, those were the only instances of fatalities we could find. And other than scattered reports of retail stores running afoul of local ordinances in places where K-2 has been banned, and stories in which K-2 may have played a part in crimes committed by miscreants loaded on multiple drugs, the only solely K-2-related trouble we've come across in Texas was that of an unidentified man in Bryan who was arrested for DWI after getting behind the wheel admittedly blasted on K-2. (And there was also a strange case in Santa Fe, in which an undercover cop asked a man if he had any K-2 to sell. No, the man replied, but he would be happy to sell some of his weed.)
In its release to the media, the DEA claimed to have received "an increasing number of reports from poison centers, hospitals and law enforcement regarding these products."
That has not been the case in Houston.
Locally, Houston Police narcotics squad Sergeant John Yencha has not come across any K-2-related havoc. He's quick to point out that since the substance is legal in Houston and since he does not work patrol, he would be unlikely to deal with these cases as a first responder, but he does take an avid interest in studying all manner of intoxicants. And he has been keeping up with K-2, if not through his job at HPD.
After a bad trip, a couple of his workout buddies asked him about it, he said. "They got so screwed up on it that it scared them," Yencha says. They wanted to know if it was legal and if they would fail a dope test, Yencha added.
Yes and no, respectively. Very few urinalysis tests detect synthetic cannabis, which makes it very popular with probationers and parolees, and people with nosy bosses.
Another demo that favors the stuff is people who simply don't like breaking the law. A young mother we found through K-2's 2,784-member Facebook fan page told us she switched from weed to K-2 for fear of legal ramifications.
While Yencha has not seen or heard of anyone flipping out on K-2 alone, Yencha says he believes that he has seen a pretty serious case of K-2 interacting with another drug. It happened at his side job working in the emergency room at St. Luke's.
"This guy came in there and said he was high on K-2, but he also admitted to smoking some ice [meth], too," Yencha remembers. "It was really crystal-clear ice. As a matter of fact, he actually brought the ice to the emergency room with him and asked them to test it to make sure it wasn't rat poison or something, and he ended up getting a case filed on him...I'll tell you this: That ice was really, really clear, but I've never seen nobody that messed up on just ice."
Yencha says the man stayed utterly incoherent for hours and hours, long after doctors had treated him in the ER and sent him to a bed upstairs. "I talked to him because I like chasing meth, and I went upstairs and tried to interview him, and he was still so messed up I couldn't get a straight answer out of him. He wasn't lying to me [about the K-2], and he was still really, really high. And ice [alone] isn't gonna do that."
Dr. Angela Fisher, medical director of the emergency center at Ben Taub, and Dr. Bobby Kapur, director of Educational Affairs at Baylor College of Medicine, also say that pure K-2 or weed emergency room admissions are very rare to downright nonexistent at Ben Taub.
In fact, Kapur says that in his experience, no patient admitted to Ben Taub has ever said he was there because of K-2.
As with Yencha's meth patient, Ben Taub's drug screens often reveal that the stoned patients they do see have usually also taken cocaine or PCP. "A lot of people smoke marijuana laced with either of those things," Kapur says. "So often we get what we call a rainbow — the kind of thing where everything pops up positive."
Fisher points out that a far bigger problem than K-2, weed or other party drugs is the so-called holy trinity prescription cocktail of Xanax, Soma and Vicodin. "Those patients really are debilitated," she says. "They get in car crashes, they fall down stairs. The prescription drugs have really become a problem. But the party drugs like X and marijuana?"
"Those people know what to expect," Kapur interjects. "They think, 'Okay, for the next two hours, I am gonna have this experience.'"
While that is not necessarily the case with K-2's mixed-bag experience, Fisher speculates that some people who have had negative trips on K-2 or been shocked by bad side effects may have come down off their highs before they reached Ben Taub.
She thinks some may be getting treated and released by paramedics, while others have been comforted and instructed by phone workers at poison control centers. (According to a spokeswoman for the American Association of Poison Control Centers, as of November 23, there have been 2,304 K-2-related calls fielded at 60 poison control centers nationwide in 2010, up from a mere six the year before.)
As K-2 spread throughout Europe, a backlash of bans followed, and now some forms of JWH compounds are illegal in Germany, the United Kingdom, France, Russia and several other countries.
Until last Wednesday, the Drug Enforcement Administration had merely listed these products as "drug[s] of concern," but the feds had otherwise punted the question to the states. Since March, some JWH compounds or substances billed as "synthetic marijuana" compounds have been banned in 13 states, with legislation under consideration in six more. (All of which is moot now.)
These bans have met with little opposition from the usual suspects — pot advocacy groups such as the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws and the American Civil Liberties Union, which has officially taken no position on the substances.
As for pot advocates, local drug law reform crusader Dean Becker of KPFT thinks the whole thing is silly. "Why do we need fake weed when the real stuff is so much better?" he says.
And as "Radical" Russ Belville, a blogger at NORML's Web site, puts it: "Do you really, really want to stop people from smoking K-2? Legalize cannabis. Only prohibition could create a system where people are so desperate for access to a safe, effective, non-toxic natural relaxant that they'll smoke a new, synthetic, untested substitute with no consistency of effect and control over the ingredients."
As the feds will soon likely find out, banning K-2 is not as simple as banning cocaine or heroin. With K-2, chemists can simply tweak a molecule here or there and come up with an equally effective fake THC formula not covered in whatever legislation exists in their states. Ergo, we're already on to blends with names like K-3 and K-4 in some places, and remember, Huffman's lab alone came up with 450 synthetic versions of THC. Law enforcement in Louisiana is already looking like a dog chasing its tail: After two products called Mojo and Spice were banned and removed from shelves, a nearly-but-not-quite-identical, but equally potent one called Potpourri has remained.)
In Texas, dozens of municipalities including Dallas, Bryan and College Station, Conroe, Santa Fe, Livingston, Alvin, Tomball and Port Arthur already banned K-2, making its possession or sale a Class C misdemeanor, punishable by a ticket and fine but no jail time.
Until the feds did it for her, Plano Republican state Senator Florence Shapiro wanted to change that. She led the now likely aborted charge to ban K-2 statewide and with enhanced, though as-yet undefined, possible jail-time punishments. She had said she wanted the penalties for breaking her hoped-for K-2 law "of equal importance to real marijuana."
That's a dubious prospect to Scott Henson, a former journalist turned opposition researcher/political consultant, public policy researcher and blogger specializing in Texas criminal justice.
To him, the whole drive to ban K-2 has an air of futility about it, even as it is utterly predictable. (We spoke to Henson before the federal ban was announced, so he does not intend for his remarks to apply to their actions.) "Every new thing that somebody claims they can get high off of, somebody's gonna try to ban that thing in the Legislature," he says. "That's just a given — the prohibitionist impulse kicks in whether it causes enough damage to justify banning it or not.
Henson also detected an element of grandstanding from Shapiro, and thinks it predictable that the drive to ban K-2 would come from Plano, home of the lethal white suburban heroin craze of the late '90s.
Writing bills like this is a no-brainer for politicians, he says. "Everyone wants to file a bill that's easy to pass, and nothing's easier to pass than bills like this," he says. "Bills increasing criminal penalties, creating new crimes, things that are 'for the children'..."
And then there's the whole chemistry aspect. How can you stay one step ahead of the synthetic THC cooks? Shapiro, and now the DEA, apparently believes that lawmakers can checkmate the chemists, possibly by adding any and all of the JWH compounds to the State of Texas's already enormous list of banned substances, which are broken down into five so-called "penalty groups." (The upcoming DEA ban lists only five compounds. Remember that Huffman's Clemson lab generated 450 forms of synthetic THC by itself.)
Henson doesn't think it's possible or wise. "There's always gonna be something new," he says. "There's never gonna come a time where we've banned everything that will get you high. If you ban this one, they're gonna come up with some new compound. Some of the things they ban, like psilocybin mushrooms, you're never gonna keep Texans from having access to those, 'cause they grow in cow patties."
What's more, given the state's budget crunch, Henson doesn't think Texas can afford jailing more people for victimless crimes. (Jailing people for K-2 will most likely fall to the states, just as incarcerating marijuana users does today.)
Henson says that we will be told that enforcing the law will have no cost. Henson's advice: Don't believe it. While it might not cost the State of Texas per se, it will come out of taxpayers' pockets one way or another. "It does cost the locals in jail space, and they will have to pay for lawyers for the indigent, process through the courts. All that stuff costs money."
Even before the upcoming ban was announced, and without recourse to testing, the National Drug Court Resource Center (a federally funded advisory group for drug courts nationwide) was advising local probation offices and parole boards to ramp up their searches of their clients' homes and persons.
"For clients suspected of synthetic cannabinoids abuse, searches should be frequent, random, unannounced and occur during non-governmental hours," advises a bulletin on the group's Web site. "An intrusive inspection of a client's home, car, school, work, 'hangouts' and other restricted areas provides a visible message to all participants as to the court's monitoring vigilance."
Doctors Kapur and Fisher conduct their interviews in a little office overlooking the parklike grounds across the street from Ben Taub. Getting there, you have to walk down a corridor of patients on stretchers getting pre-admittance triage from scurrying paramedics. Still, it's a tranquil space amid daily scenes of unbelievable tragedy: 108,000 patients walk or are wheeled through the doors of the elite tier-one trauma center yearly.
And almost none of them get there solely because of weed or weed substitutes.
"Marijuana is such a mellowing agent," says Kapur. "Yeah, it's not like those people are fighting the police," agrees Fisher.
That's precisely the point Henson has been trying to make on his blog and in his other writings. He believes that every new circumstance does not require a new law, and that Texans can apply laws already on the books to situations as they arise. He points out that there are already 2,383 felonies in the Texas penal code, 11 dealing with situations involving oysters alone. "That's a lot of felonies and they keep adding more," he says. "Ten was enough for the good Lord."
Instead of governing substances, Henson believes the state should ride herd on behaviors. "If someone is a public nuisance, or endangering others, or driving recklessly or intoxicated while driving [on any substance], there are already statutes on the books to deal with all that."
Meanwhile, back at the office, I still had that interview looming and a full load of God knows which of Professor Huffman's concoctions roiling in my bloodstream.
Moises, Hector and I had parted ways. I headed back to my desk, believing everybody in the office knew I was stoned. I could practically hear them whispering it...
"Look at how stoned Lomax is..."
Pishposh. While I could handle this, it was kind of annoying that, to paraphrase that genial old stoner anthem, all these people could hear every word I thought. What then? More of John Prine's "Illegal Smile" popped up in my head: "Well I went to court / And the judge's name was Huff-man..." Whoa.
It was best to get back to my office and hide in front of my computer. Or maybe, if this rocky row kept on getting tougher and tougher to hoe, I would duck down into the hidey-hole under my desk.
But first I would need water, lots and lots of ice-cold spring water to drink. It was off for another paranoid, stiff-legged ramble across the Press office, and when I returned, there was an e-mail from my co-worker — Moises and Hector's friend — relaying a question to me. "What's the name of the stuff you used just now," it read in total. So evidently this wasn't all in my head and my head alone.
Refreshed by the cold water, and not possessed of the usual case of munchies, the high started to level off. A comforting thought took hold: You're not really stoned, Lomax. You're just synthetically stoned. If weed was cane sugar Dublin-bottled Dr Pepper, this stuff was the Splenda-laced diet crap from the local bottling plant. You couldn't even get fat or diabetic or hyper off this crap, and it wouldn't even eat the enamel off your teeth. But then it might cause cancer...Or hallucinations, vomiting and temporary paralysis in K-2's case
Right about then the crew from Channel 39 showed up. The Richmond Strip was not quite dead yet, and neither was I. Showtime.
To judge for yourself how John Lomax did, go to www.39online.com/news/local/kiah-richmondstrip-story,0,7924446.story.