K2 Giving People Another Dangerous Way to Get High

A marijuana substitute mixed with incense is an emerging drug.

ByABC News
March 16, 2010, 5:28 PM

March 17, 2010— -- A synthetic substitute for marijuana's active ingredient mixed with incense is emerging as a popular choice for teens who want to smoke and get high, even as it poisons them.

The substance, known as "spice" or "K2," is a cannabinoid, a class of drug that includes THC, the active ingredient in marijuana.

First synthesized in an academic chemistry lab in South Carolina for pharmaceutical research, it moved on to be a plant-growing aid in Asia and then a substitute for marijuana in Europe before its recent emergence in the United States, where it skirts the laws placed on its herbal cousin.

"The stuff that's been put into the incense was originally made in our lab 15 years ago," said John W. Huffman, a professor of organic chemistry at Clemson University.

Huffman said his research, funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, was focused on making a drug to target endocannabinoid receptors in the body. While the better known receptor is the one in the central nervous system that gives a high, another in the immune system is tied up with inflammatory pain.

The active ingredient in spice is known to scientists as JWH-018, since it was the 18th such compound the lab made.

JWH-018 was likely chosen, Huffman said, because it is the easiest of its type to be synthesized outside a lab, requiring just two steps using commercial products.

But getting a pure version is another story.

"People are getting reactions to [spice] that are not typical of cannabinoids," Huffman said. "You're dealing with a very potent cannabinoid and also you don't know what is in this herbal product that you buy for 40 bucks a bag."

And a number of people have paid the price, being hospitalized after using the drug for ailments ranging from stomach problems to seizures.

"These products weren't designed for human consumption," said Dr. Alvin C. Bronstein, medical director of Rocky Mountain Poison Center and director of surveillance for the American Association of Poison Control Centers.

He said the drug recently came on his organization's radar and they have begun tracking spice's use, although it is too soon to know for certain the trend in spice's use.

"At this point, we don't know how much of a problem this is going to be," said Bronstein.