A blend of herbs laced with synthetic marijuana known popularly as K2 is being sold openly in head shops and online, often sending people who smoke it to hospitals with symptoms ranging from soaring heart rates to paranoia to near-death experiences, according to health professionals.
Little is known about the long-term effects of the legal substance, also known as Spice, Demon, Genie, Zohai and a host of other names. But authorities believe it could have been behind the death of an Iowa teenager who committed suicide last month shortly after smoking it.
Last week, Missouri became the eighth state in the country to ban the marijuana substitute, which is marketed as incense. Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe signed an emergency order banning K2 earlier this month, and similar legislation is pending in New York, New Jersey, Illinois, Louisiana, Michigan and Ohio.
"Whatever is being done is not being done fast enough," Brendan Bickley, the clinical director of an addiction treatment center in Southern California, said. "It's the perfect drug. It's legal. It's undetectable. It's odorless. It's cheap."
K2 sells for about $40 an ounce.
At the Orange County treatment center, with 75 inpatient beds, Bickley said K2 has become so popular that staff must routinely search rooms for hidden stashes. K2 has also become popular among high school and college students.
"I call it a treatment-center killer," said Bickley, adding that patients are lighting up at treatment centers and group outings. "You can't detect it. It's more powerful than marijuana. People who smoke it say it really does mess you up. It causes a person to become extremely high. The withdrawals are horrible. Clients get very angry and agitated."
Although banned in many European countries, the substance has largely avoided regulation in the United States because it is sold as incense and in packages that state it's not for human consumption.
Dr. Anthony Scalzo, a professor of emergency medicine at St. Luis University, said there have been 567 K2-related calls in 41 states this year, compared to 13 in 2009. Scalzo, the medical director of the Missouri Poison Control Center, first reported a spike in K2 cases earlier this year and immediately started studying the effects of the substance.
"The common thread throughout all the cases is this degree of anxiety, agitation, fast heart rate and elevated blood pressure," Scalzo said.
Some people reported hallucinations and near-death experiences but Scalzo added, "The hallucinations are not always consistent and I suspect it's perhaps a dose effect. Maybe some individuals are using more."
Health professionals and toxicologists are studying the death of 18-year-old David Rozga, who committed suicide in Iowa last month after smoking K2. Police said Rozga smoked the substance with friends before "freaking out" and saying he was "going to hell."
At home later, the recent high school graduate took a rifle and shot himself in the head.
"Smoking something that's supposed to be substitute for marijuana, you're expecting to be mellow," Scalzo said. "Unfortunately, you're not getting that. No one really sort of field tested these chemicals. We don't even know where exactly this stuff is made."