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Knocking K2 down 

But there may be more mountains to climb.

click to enlarge A TUBE OF TROUBLE: The public health lab's Dr. Jeffery Moran is close to creating a way to test for ingestion of the soon-to-be illegal compounds.
  • A TUBE OF TROUBLE: The public health lab's Dr. Jeffery Moran is close to creating a way to test for ingestion of the soon-to-be illegal compounds.

Days are numbered for stores selling K2 and Genie and other herbal products that have been spiked with chemicals that mimic pot. The Arkansas Board of Health will consider an emergency rule on Friday declaring that they constitute an "imminent peril" to public health, and their sale could be illegal as soon as the board votes. The emergency rule will make sale of the products illegal for 120 days.

Dr. Paul Halverson proposed the rule citing a statute that allows the Health Department to act to prevent exposure to chemicals (S.S. 20-7-109 (e)). The rule would make sale of the substance a misdemeanor. His other option was to include synthetic pot in Schedule 1 drugs like heroin and methamphetamine, the possession and sale of which is a felony.

The move will please Sen. Donna Hutchinson, R-Bella Vista, who has hounded the Health Department to stop the sale of the substance, now available at head shops, convenience stores and gas stations, though several cities and counties in Arkansas have outlawed it.

K2 and like products — manufactured in China using formulas that act on the brain like THC, the active ingredient in marijuana —have been sold for a couple of years in the U.S. and longer in Europe. Several states, starting with Kansas, have moved to make the product illegal.

The Arkansas Poison Control Center has received 20 calls from emergency rooms about patients reporting using the product, center chief Howell Foster said, and most have been from Hutchinson's bailiwick, Northwest Arkansas. But the problem is not much on the radar screen in Little Rock. Little Rock Police are focused on hard drugs; spokesman Lt. Terry Hastings said K2 use "has not been a major issue here for us."

Most of the calls to Poison Control concern young adults ages 15 to 26 or 27, Foster said. The most common symptom is extreme agitation, Foster said. Two cases of syncopy — sudden unconsciousness likely caused by a sudden drop in blood pressure — have been reported and he knows of a third. Syncopy "is a pretty concerning symptom in someone young," he said. One case of suspected seizure was reported.

Nationally, poison control centers have reported 352 cases in 35 states, with Missouri as the epicenter, according to USA Today.

But as Arkansas moves to ban K2 and like products, Foster predicts, new ones will arise to take their place. "There are literally hundreds" of synthetic compounds to produce a high, he said. "You're going to be chasing your tail" suppressing them.

Ordinances passed in cities and counties in Arkansas name K2 and Spice and compounds found in the products: the two most well-known compounds — jwh-018 and jwh-073 (named for the Clemson University chemist whose lab created them), salvia divinorum, HU-210, TFMPP and other "structural analogs."

But, Foster said, "there's a lot more to this than just flipping a law." As new products come on the market, the state will have to prove that they contain the illegal compounds. That will require expensive assays — tests that can cost $2,000, Foster said — run on each new product. The best way to control the chemicals, he believes, is for the federal Food and Drug Administration to step in and regulate their production.

K2 (referencing the second highest mountain in the world), more commonly sold as Spice outside the U.S., and the other spiked herbs are sold in 3-gram packets. Abbey Road, at 1400 S. University, "is the number 1 distributor of K2 in the nation. I guess it's just caught on real big here," said employee Matt Taylor. The contents of the packets look like potpourri, flakes of dried leaves and such, and the product packaging says it's not for human consumption. But for around $40 for 3 grams, it's not for putting in a bowl in the living room, either — unless it's a pipe bowl.

It's hard to know how a law banning use of the products, rather than the sale as the proposed rule would do, cxould be enforced, given that there are now no tests to detect the compounds in urine or blood. The state Public Health Laboratory is working on identifying metabolites of jwh-018 and jwh-073 and may be on the verge of validating a test for those metabolites in urine, said Jeffery Moran, branch chief for environmental chemistry at the Public Health Lab. The public health lab will also conduct population studies to see how widespread use is in Arkansas, testing random samples ordered by ER doctors treating patients who appear to be suffering from substance abuse.

What they're seeing in the laboratory is backing up what interviews with users have told them, said Moran and Cindy Moran, a chemist with the Crime Lab and Jeffery Moran's wife: Different products cause different levels of intoxication. Cindy Moran, who initially purchased K2 products (there are a variety of them, with names like "citron" and "blonde") for the public health lab to test before the chemical compounds in pure form were available, said sellers reported that some brands were best for first-time users. In the lab, Jeffery Moran is seeing that the way compounds are combined affects how intoxicating they are.

Mike Brown, who sells K2 products from his Green Grass Rock N Roll Grocery and Bodega on President Clinton Avenue, said buyers are across the board. "There is no stereotyping of who is purchasing this product — families, city workers, people on parole, police officers." He does not sell to anyone under 18. He sold 45 packets during Riverfest.

Abbey Road's Taylor, while he thinks K2 isn't dangerous, said he thinks salvia is. "I've seen people smoke Salvia and flip cars," he said.

The Health Department will start the rule-making process during the 120 days the emergency rule is in effect. That process requires public hearings.

Sen. David Johnson, a former Pulaski County prosecutor, is working with the Health Department on a bill he'll introduce in the next legislative session to include synthetic marijuana in the drug schedule. The current rule doesn't not do that.

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