Legislators want to ban synthetic pot

Some West Virginia lawmakers want to ban K2 and other so-called synthetic marijuana products, which are growing in popularity.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The sign outside Key West Tanning & Video calls the stuff "herbal incense."

But the product, called K2, isn't really meant make your house smell good. People smoke it to get high. After reports of dangerous side effects, some state legislators are talking about banning it.

The shop owner said he didn't want to talk to a reporter about the product, even though it is currently legal. Inside his West Side store, a sample of K2 goes for $10. A 3-gram packet is $29.99.

The silver packet it comes in says, "Not for Consumption."

K2 looks like potpourri. It's a mixture of herbs sprayed with a psychoactive chemical meant to create effects similar to the active ingredient in marijuana, but doesn't show up on drug tests. Other brand names include "Spice" and "Genie."

Experts say some users have experienced hallucinations, severe agitation, vomiting and convulsions. Nationwide, poison control centers have gotten more than 1,000 calls this year about K2 and other synthetic marijuana products, according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers.

The West Virginia Poison Center got its first call about K2 the second week of August, said director Dr. Elizabeth Scharman. There have been four more since then.

"We'll have to wait and see whether this turns into something bigger or not," Scharman said.

State lawmakers including Delegate Ralph Rodighiero, D-Logan, say they have been hearing community concerns about K2, which is sold in gas stations, convenience stores and head shops.

"It definitely has been an issue in Logan County," Rodighiero said, adding that the drug is popular among high school students.

House Health and Human Resources Chairman Don Perdue, D-Wayne, said he worries the product could contain contaminants because it is unregulated. He said the Legislature could move to outlaw the product when it meets in January.

"I'll be looking at an outright ban," said Perdue, who is also a pharmacist. "It hasn't been proven to be safe. It has no therapeutic use that we know of."

State public health officials also say K2 is on their radar.

The Bureau for Public Health is "watching closely to see if this is something we need to monitor," Department of Health and Human Resources spokeswoman Marsha Dadisman said in an e-mail to the Gazette.

This year, at least eight states have banned synthetic marijuana products, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Six states have bills pending.

Also, at least four state agencies have enacted bans, including state pharmacy boards in Iowa and North Dakota, according to NCSL.

Dr. Anthony Scalzo, professor and director of toxicology at St. Louis University in Missouri, said the chemicals in K2 have been used in products sold in Europe since at least 2006.

"When they got over here would be anybody's guess," said Scalzo, who also directs the Missouri Poison Center at SSM Cardinal Glennon Children's Medical Center.

Scalzo first noticed an increase in K2 calls to his center in late 2009. He soon started researching the drug and alerting his colleagues.

He believes bans on the product are justified.

"I think it's important to encourage our legislatures to get some kind of control over this substance," Scalzo said.

"There are enough adverse effects that I have personally seen, and been consulted on," he said, "that tell me there is danger."

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration believes synthetic marijuana "is of great concern," and is weighing whether to make it a controlled substance, said spokeswoman Melissa Bell of the agency's Washington, D.C. division.

Some state lawmakers say they don't want to wait on the feds to act.

"Without a real knowledge of what it can or can't do over long-term use, it's not a good idea to be putting it into the hands of kids," Perdue said.

Reach Alison Knezevich at alis...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1240.