By Mike Lauterborn
(appeared as front page feature in Fairfield Sun 6/23)
Fairfield, CT – Call it Reefer Madness. When an aromatic incense called K2, comprised of various herbs and botanicals designed to elevate the senses, grew in popularity, rip-off artists noticed and began to copy and capitalize on it. Available in convenience marts, food stops and smokeshops, the faux products – with provocative names like K2 Spice, K2 Krush and Kryp2nite -- contain marijuana derivatives and dangerous chemicals that can be hazardous to users, which are often teenagers that smoke this synthetic marijuana substance as a legal way to get high. Recognizing the hazards of these products and their status as a gateway to more serious drugs, a bill to ban the fake pot has been unanimously approved in both the Connecticut State House of Representatives and Senate and now awaits approval by the Governor.
First blip on the radar
Jan Laster, Regional Action Council and Health Promotion Director for RYASAP (Regional Youth Adult Social Action Partnership), said these synthetic marijuana products first hit her organization’s radar last fall. Housed on Fairfield Avenue at the Burroughs Community Center in Bridgeport, RYASAP is a community-driven non-profit that actively engages other organizations, public officials and community leaders around specific issues, trying to create a catalyst for change and system reform.
“At a statewide meeting of Regional Action Council directors, faux marijuana came up as being prevalent and a big problem, though predominantly in the southeast corner of the state,” Laster said. “We noted a lot of usage among members of the military in particular, given the prominence of armed forces locations in that area. The chemical compounds were not detectable through the military’s drug-screening process, so not only was it undetectable but they could obtain it legally, too. That was a concern.”
Of more concern was its accessibility to young people statewide, and how it is marketed to appeal to them. “The products have flashy names, psychedelic and colorful packaging, and often plastic pouches and different shapes,” she said.
More troubling are the potential side effects. “Psychological effects can include distorted perception, loss of coordination, problems with memory and learning, and trouble with thinking and problem solving,” said Laster. “Physical effects can include increased heart rate, immune system impairment, high blood pressure, hallucinations and paranoia.”
Laster commented that, as a parent, these effects would raise her eyebrows. “When something’s legal and available, it gives the perception that the product is safe,” she said. “Kids trying to drive or ride home, though, are putting themselves at risk and this is very concerning.”
Laster explained that the herbs are laced with synthetic cannabinoids, which are psychoactive manmade chemicals that mimic the effects of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which is the active ingredient in marijuana.
“We are making our constituencies aware of it and, as a group, we asked state senate and state legislators to create a bill,” she said. “It’s among our top concerns along with alcohol and tobacco.”
Senator Paul Doyle, a Democrat in Wethersfield, CT, who is also Senate Chair of the state legislature’s General Law Committee, initiated the bill to ban synthetic marijuana. “I didn’t know much about it at first,” he said. “The age requirement to buy it is very low and purchase is not highly policed. When the hazards were shared with me, I moved to support it. People are more aware of the dangers of marijuana. This can be even more dangerous, given its underground availability and nature.”
Laster added, “You have to stay ahead of the curve. Kids are often aware of things before adults – where to get it, how to get it. We want to raise awareness and be proactive in the community. It’s a tedious balance battling this as it puts it on kids’ radar screens, where it may not have been before.”
A gateway to more serious drug abuse
Fairfield resident Joanne White lost her son Ryan to a heroin overdose and now works to help others who have experienced this pain through an annual healing walk, website and other means. She said use of synthetic marijuana could be a stepping stone to more serious addictions.
“He experimented with beer, then went to pot,” she said. “It was an escalating disease, that progressed to Oxycontin and beyond. He experimented with 25 to 30 boys and girls. Some walked away from these experiments, while others continued to go up the ladder, like Ryan.”
White said the danger with synthetic pot is that you’re not sure what it’s being laced with and it could be lethal or laced with properties that make it more addictive. “The people making the product are looking for lifetime buyers,” she said. “The sooner they can get them hooked, the better for them. This type of pot is much stronger and harder to walk away from. Once you start medicating yourself on a daily basis, it becomes a way of life. Every addict makes a drug choice that can put them in jail or take their life. Addicts look to maintain their high. It all catches up.”
White says parents need to keep a watchful eye on their children and be on the lookout for changes. “You can’t say all kids do it when it comes to pot,” she said. “You need to look for the signs and get them help before it escalates.”
With sadness in her voice, White noted, “My son was 31 when he passed. He was a phenomenal person and graphic artist in the city, but he overdosed from heroin.”
Communication may be the best prevention
Like Laster, John Hamilton, a Fairfield-based licensed alcohol and drug counselor and CEO of the Recovery Network of Programs, a highly revered treatment agency, is concerned that drawing attention to these products may have a counterproductive effect.
“The main issues we see are binge drinking and prescription drug use,” Hamilton said. “Synthetics are not on the radar screen in this area yet. The hysteria of adults may work against the cause, sparking curiosity. At the same time, it’s an issue that can create a trend. You can get it easy and cheaply, and there’s no perception of harm, so kids will try it. It needs to be seen as bad either through legislation or high fines.”
Hamilton said it’s hard to know who will develop a problem but there are certain key influencers. “We don’t have the science and data to predict what people will become addicted to drug-wise,” he said. “But we know factors that influence vulnerability, which include depression, anxiety, ADHD and poor resilience. A major factor is stress, which actually influences hard wiring of the brain.”
In terms of parents adopting an approach with their kids, Hamilton said a ‘scared straight’ strategy may backfire and often kids will trust their friends more than adults. “Scared straight and a dollar won’t buy you a cup of coffee,” he said.
“In the bigger picture, you need to give kids hope, resilience and community support as a real protection against substance problems or addiction,” Hamilton said. “Parents have to show they have faith and confidence in their children. The child and parent need to have an honest and open line of communication. If kids are doing drugs to mood regulate or feel better, they’re in trouble. That’s the big red flag.”
K2 or Not K2, that is the question
The home website of K2, www.K2incenseblend.com, defines the product as “a powerfully aromatic incense blend that can uplift and elevate your senses with its soothing mellow aroma.” The maker claims it contains a variety of botanicals, plant material and proprietary ingredients. If offers the product in a variety of different scents purported to help soothe the body and mind through its aromatherapeutic properties. Main ingredients the site lists include Canavalia rosea, Clematis vitalba, Nelumbo nucifera, Pedicularis grandifolia, Heimia salicifolia, Leonurus sibiricus and Ledum palustre. It is price-tagged at $20 to $30 per gram, depending on quality. The maker currently offers four brands: K2 Blonde, K2 Summit, K2 Ultra and K2 Solid Sex.
A companion website, www.K2Wholesale.com, warns about the multitude of fake, poorly copied and potentially dangerous K2 rip-off products marketed under more than 75 provocative names, which it lists. “With no quality control over these fake and counterfeit K2 incense blends, and no way of knowing what these boiler room/garage/kitchen/basement producers are putting into these products, buyer beware!” the site states. The site also warned sellers of the faux products, who risk criminal prosecution and property seizure.
Numerous videos on YouTube show young people using imitations, like K2 Volcano. One clip shows a young couple, Jay and Rhiannon, smoking it, flashing the package and saying, “The sh** gets you f***in stoned.” Clearly, these products are not being used as incense as marketed, and contain properties that produce a high. Their long-term effects are unclear given the absence of disclosure of ingredients and regulation. It seems apparent that only a ban and pursuit of criminal action in cases where death or serious medical conditions result from product usage will curb its proliferation.