Synthetic drugs are flying under radar unless you’re a young buyer
By Brady Tackett
Jane is not the real name of the NorthWest Arkansas Community College student who uses a legal, synthetic drug called K2 that she says helps her concentrate during the day.
“It’s comparable to drinking an entire Red Bull,” Jane said. “Your mind works really fast. I like studying on K2.”
Synthetic drugs like K2 combine the efficiency of pharmaceuticals with the methodology of marijuana. Because they don’t carry the stigma of better-known drugs and the mystery of their effects appeals to young buyers, most synthetic drugs go unnoticed by the public.
Roughly one in five teens can acquire prescription drugs in an hour or less, according to a 2009 report by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse. In the last decade, young drug users filled their pockets with pills, which they used to fall asleep, to study and, of course, to get high.
K2, a kind of manmade marijuana, embodies the intersection of old world organic drugs and pharmaceuticals.
It’s an herbal mixture coated in a synthetic cannabinoid that mimics THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana. Athletes love it because drug tests can’t detect it, and K2 produces a longer-lasting euphoria that doesn’t leave users groggy like some strands of marijuana.
“K2 is more of a head high. You’re more paranoid than you would be with weed,” Jane said. “It gives you more energy than marijuana does, but it makes you jittery.”
Now, it seems K2’s legal stint in the United States is suddenly ending.
Last month, police in Lawrence, Kan., helped the Food and Drug Administration raid a Lawrence shop, Bouncing Bear Botanicals, which is also the K2 distributor for Northwest Arkansas.
Authorities slapped Bouncing Bear owner Jonathan Sloan with eight felonies and seized more than $700,000 from his warehouse and bank accounts, according to a statement from Sloan’s father.
The FDA confiscated botanicals that contained precursors to chemicals on the federal schedule of controlled substances, like mescaline and LSD, and also a supply of K2 that halted the drug’s steady flow throughout the Midwest.
Four days later, Kansas legislators passed a House bill that would outlaw K2, so it seems the FDA’s raid was pre-emptive. Officials outlawed similar drugs in parts of South America and Europe, where a decade of good sales led to a sour reputation.
The lack of valid studies on the compound’s toxicology and long-term effects on the body leaves uneasy parents and officials to fill in the blanks.
University of Arkansas police have come into contact with K2 twice already, said Gary Crain, a spokesman for UAPD. “The stuff is legal, so there was no case.”
Legality is good for business. Everywhere, K2 leaves a trail of profit.
An employee of a Northwest Arkansas shop that sells K2 said the store recently sold $2,000 worth of K2 in one day. At almost $10 per gram, the drug has promptly become the store’s most lucrative item since its arrival in the U.S. half a year ago, said the employee, who wished to remain unnamed for fear of being fired.
“I can’t have any alone time at work any more because people are in the store all day buying K2,” the employee said.
Shops market the herbs as incense with an obligatory sticker that disclaims K2 as “not for consumption.” The drug even comes in four different scents. But buyers of this “incense” must be 18 or older.
As with any chemical, users develop a tolerance that leaves them buying more K2 and gradually taking higher doses. The draw of synthetic drugs is their commercialization, their accessibility.
“It’s just more consistent to buy K2 because it’s sold in stores,” said Jane, the NWACC student.
This was never the intent for JWH-018, the psychoactive synthetic chemical in K2.
“It should absolutely NOT be used as a recreational drug,” wrote John Huffman, an organic chemistry research professor at Clemson University, in an e-mail.
Huffman, the namesake of the compound, was researching THC in 1995 when an undergraduate student synthesized JWH-018 in his laboratory.
“I emphasize that this compound was not designed to be a super-THC,” Huffman said.
The unknown long-term effects of a synthetic drug like K2 might alarm parents and police — local news reports suggest that they do — but they don’t frighten away users.
“When I’m on it, my eyes get shifty and my muscles have spasms sometimes,” Jane said. “It doesn’t really bother me because I’m just doing this to get an intoxicated feeling and these are the side effects.”
The inevitable ban of K2 signals the wane of a brief and bizarre era of hybrid drugs, but it also underscores the strength of manmade chemicals. As the scientific body of knowledge grows, drug chemistry will become more accurate than ever.
“The quality of K2 is always consistent,” Jane said. “You look for that.”