By L.A. Williams, Correspondent
Christian Action League
RALEIGH — Lawmakers who don’t frequent head shops or tobacco outlets may need a crash course in so-called “spice” drugs early next year as they entertain an expected bill to ban the dangerous substances marketed as incense but smoked like marijuana. They may also want to brush up on their knowledge of Mephedrone, an even more deadly substance sold as plant food but snorted or swallowed.
“These substances, both easily obtained, are gaining popularity. Already 15 states have banned ‘spice.’ And now we hear about mephedrone, a legal amphetamine that may be to blame for two deaths right here in our state,” said the Rev. Mark Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League. “North Carolina needs to pass legislation that will protect its citizens from this insidious threat.”
“We anticipate bills in both the House and the Senate to address these drugs and urge Christians across the state to educate themselves and their children about them,” he added.
Known as K2 and sold under a variety of names such as Demon, Genie and Yucatan Fire, the spice drugs are basically a blend of herbs treated with synthetic marijuana. Because producers of the product market it as incense and state on the packaging that it is “not for human consumption,” it is not federally regulated. In fact, it’s sold openly in convenience stores, tobacco shops and online for prices ranging from $3 to $40 a gram.
The active ingredients were developed 17 years ago in a lab at Clemson University by chemist John W. Huffman, hence the name of the most common compound, JWH-018. The chemicals were intended only for research and haven’t been tested on humans. In fact, Huffman was exploring potential pharmaceutical products similar to tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the active ingredient in marijuana, when he synthesized the compound.
Huffman never patented nor sold the formula and has warned against anyone smoking any compound with unknown biological properties. He has told the media that the substance does not have any medicinal uses. Instead, “like LSD, the only thing it is good for is getting you high.”
He told the News and Observer late last summer that apparently someone with scientific knowledge found out about the substance in a scientific journal and put the psychotropic compound on the market. Now, there are a variety of producers creating varying strengths of the chemical and calling it all K2, a very disturbing trend according to toxicologists who have been studying the drug’s effects in emergency room patients.
According to a September news release from the American Association of Poison Control Centers, the number of K2-related calls jumped from 15 in 2009 to more than 1,500 so far this year. Many users are showing up at hospitals with elevated heart rates, high blood pressure, agitation, vomiting, hallucinations and even seizures. Investigators in Iowa believe the drug may have led an 18-year-old to commit suicide.
Still, many users are apparently willing to take the risks, especially since Spice doesn’t show up on urine tests as marijuana.
“The fact that it is legal, accessible and relatively cheap makes this very appealing to young people who are the least prone to research the effects of smoking this,” said the Rev. Creech.
But lawmakers are researching. Sen. Harry Brown (R-Onslow) introduced Senate Joint Resolution 1452 — Make Synthetic Cannabinoids Illegal — late last session and is further investigating the matter for the long session starting in January 2011. He’ll coordinate his efforts with Rep. George Cleveland (R-Onslow) in the State House.
Both lawmakers live in Jacksonville, where the Jacksonville Daily News reported last month that six new tobacco shops had opened this year, even as tobacco use is on the decline. All six offer “spice.” The city is also home to Camp Lejeune. Although Marines have been ordered not to use the products, they remain popular among those in the military.
Like Brown and Cleveland, Sen. William Purcell (D-Scotland) is also researching K2. He sponsored a bill in 2009 that banned the manufacture, sale, delivery of possession of the psychoactive plant Salvia Divinorum or Salvinorin A.
Also on lawmakers’ radar is Mephedrone, another designer drug, but one that mimics cocaine or ecstasy rather than marijuana. Commonly called “meow-meow,” “M-Cat,” “drone,” “bubbles” or “bounce,” this substance is sold for $15 to $25 a gram as plant food or bath salts, again circumventing federal rules since it isn’t offered for consumption.
More risky than K2, the drug may be to blame for the deaths of two men found dead on a fire escape landing at a Raleigh apartment building last month. One was a North Carolina State University student; the other had just joined the Army. The investigation into their deaths continues.
A synthetic stimulant amphetamine, mephedrone is based on compounds found in the khat plant of eastern Africa. It comes in a white powder or a tablet that users can swallow, snort or inject.
Several countries including Israel and Sweden have banned the substance.
The deaths of several Britons have been blamed on mephedrone, which users say produces heightened alertness and euphoria, but can also bring on anxiety, paranoia, seizures, high blood pressure and rapid heart rate as well as nose bleeds, vomiting, hallucinations and circulation problems.
“The bottom line with these substances is that they are not made for humans, so no dosage amount is safe or even tested,” said the Rev. Creech. “And since these compounds are no good as medicines or for anything useful that we know of, we would hope the Legislature will act quickly when the session starts to pass a ban.”
Meanwhile, he suggested parents talk to their teens about the dangers inherent to these products.