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'K2' poses dangers and should be illegal

By Calvina Fay, Special to CNN
  • Calvina Fay: Minors can buy smokable herbal blends sprayed with chemicals
  • Fay says "synthetic marijuana" labeled as herbal incense to mask intended purpose
  • K2 contains dangerous drugs and should be illegal, she says, as it is in several nations
  • We don't need more addicts, drug-impaired drivers or drug-related deaths, Fay writes

Editor's note: Calvina Fay is the executive director of the Drug Free America Foundation and Save Our Society From Drugs. Drug Free America educates the public about the dangers of illicit drugs. SOS conducts political activities to combat drug legalization efforts. It is a nongovernmental organization that consults with the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations.

(CNN) -- Smokable herbal blends marketed as "legal highs" have become increasingly popular and as easy to buy as cigarettes.

The blends of exotic herbs and other plants have been sprayed or coated with one or more chemicals that, when smoked, produce euphoria. They are commonly labeled as herbal incense to mask their intended purpose. These contain drugs that are dangerous and should be illegal.

"K2" is a brand name for a dried herbal blend that can be smoked. It produces a high similar to that of marijuana but doesn't contain tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive chemical in marijuana. Instead, K2 contains synthetic chemicals, known as JWH-018 and JWH-073, that mimic THC by acting on the cannabinoid receptors in the brain.

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JWH-018 and JWH-073 are produced in China and unregulated in the United States. Similar products have been produced and marketed under names such as Spice, Genie, Blaze, Red X Dawn and Zohai. Since 2009, the Drug Enforcement Administration has been receiving reports of the abuse of these herbal products.

K2's key ingredients were invented by Dr. John Huffman at Clemson University in 1995 during medical research on the effects of cannabinoids on the brain. He found no medical benefits -- only negative side effects. Unfortunately, marijuana users reproduced the recipe, creating a legal alternative to marijuana.

Although the company manufacturing K2 is unknown, it is legally available for purchase in the U.S. by anyone, including minors.

In late 2008, herbal incense-type products that were being shipped from Europe to the U.S. were found to contain traces of another potent psychoactive chemical known as HU-210. It is classified as a Schedule I controlled substance because it is a derivative of THC with a similar chemical structure and pharmacological activity. HU-210 was also developed for experimental purposes and can be from 100 to 800 times as potent as THC.

In 2009, Germany banned the sale of Spice because tests revealed that it contained JWH-018 and yet another potent chemical, CP-47 497, developed by a drug company in the 1980s for research purposes. It produces effects similar to THC and is three to 28 times more potent.

Spice is banned by some U.S. military commands, where the potential for its abuse has been recognized. Research has linked naturally produced marijuana to health issues, including schizophrenia. With synthetic marijuana being even more potent, it is frightening to consider its potential damage.

K2 can cause increased heart rate, loss of consciousness, paranoia, hallucinations and psychotic episodes. Users report that smoking small amounts results in intense highs comparable to smoking large amounts of marijuana.

Studies in 2008 revealed that users developed chemical dependencies, withdrawal and addictive behaviors. Increasing numbers of children are purchasing synthetic marijuana products because they are legal and easier to obtain than cigarettes.

Because of the various chemicals being used, these substances are difficult to regulate. But the DEA is determining whether some or all of these products need to be controlled. More research is definitely needed. With young people using K2 more, some states are not waiting for the DEA and are moving to ban it.

Let's face it: Anytime you consume an uncontrolled or unregulated drug or a drug with unknown effects, you are taking a risk. Products like K2 are not made in a controlled environment, and those who use it are playing Russian roulette.

Schedule I drugs are defined as substances that have a high potential for abuse and no accepted medical use. At this time, the evidence suggests that these synthetic marijuana substances should be controlled and perhaps classified as Schedule I drugs.

Making these drugs illegal makes it more difficult for dealers to push them to our children. It limits availability and sends a message that the drug is dangerous -- an extremely important message since history has shown that when youngsters perceive drugs to be harmful, they are less likely to use them.

K2 serves no apparent useful purpose, and we do not need more addicted family members, drug-impaired drivers or drug-related deaths.

The sale of synthetic marijuana is banned in Britain, Germany, Poland, France, South Korea and Russia. The U.S. should move urgently to protect the public from yet another dangerous and potentially deadly class of drugs.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Calvina Fay.