In the window of Silver Streak/Krazy Katz in downtown East Lansing is a small, white marker board advertising a special sale on a substance called “K2.”
If you were to walk in and ask about it, you’d be directed to the back of the store where on a shelf in a glass case is a group of variably sized plastic baggies filled with dry green and khaki colored plant matter.
Strictly speaking, K2 is incense and is not meant for human consumption. But its packaging, reputation — especially on the Internet — and the fact that it’s sold in close proximity to elaborate glass tobacco pipes sends a different signal. K2, users say, is a legal alternative to marijuana.
“It was a different experience,” says Nick, a 21-year-old Michigan State University student who has used K2, but did not want his last name used. “You feel a little bit relaxed and it kind of puts some sort of a block in your mind; it makes you feel like everything is a little bit off. If you are familiar with the high of THC, it’s close.”
K2 arrived in the Lansing area in November. It is the newest, but not first, in a line of legal “gray market drugs” that mimic the effects of illicit drugs. Salvia, an intense of dry' is its close Nick, mimic hallucinogen, was one of the more recent popular legal drugs. There was an attempt to outlaw salvia in Michigan in 2008, but it remains legal.
K2 is actually a brand that is the latest in a line of incenses that contain the chemical JWH-018, or a variant, which affects the brain’s cannabinoid receptor. K2 has also been sold as “Spice” or “Rhino.” Substances containing JWH- 018 have been banned in some European countries, and just last week Food and Drug Administration officials raided a smoke shop in Lawrence, Kan., and confiscated the store’s K2 supply. A Kansas legislator has also been working to make K2 illegal in that state.
Galena Katz, owner of Silver Streak/ Krazy Katz, says that her store is the only one in Michigan where one can buy the specific brand K2, and that she’s been selling about five kilograms — or about 11 pounds — a week since she started offering it in November. Katz sells K2 for $9.99 per gram.
“I came across it by accident,” Katz said. “A friend called me and said, ‘I developed this incense and you should try it.’”
Katz said she had tried the other brands of incense, but did not like them. But her experience with K2 was different.
“I said, ‘Wow, this is really great,’” she said. “I jumped on it.”
Katz says her store has exclusive rights to sell K2, and she would not consider wholesaling the product to a store within 50 miles of Krazy Katz.
JWH-018 is named after John Huffman, a professor of organic chemistry at Clemson University in South Carolina. The chemical was created by accident in 1995 by one of his students during research on the brain’s cannabinoid receptors. Huffman said he’s aware that the chemical is being used in commercial products as an alternative to marijuana, and that for the last 14 months he’s been getting steady calls from media about the chemical. He, however, does not approve of how its use.
“Anybody who uses it is stupid,” he said.
Compared to marijuana, there is not a vast body research on what JWH-018 does to the body. He said for anyone familiar with chemistry, it is relatively easy to make. He suspects that manufacturers are simply mixing the chemical with plants and selling it.
K2 and its cohorts are not illegal on the federal level, though the Drug Enforcement Agency has issued bulletins about the substance.
It appears that K2 has reached an audience with MSU students. Rebecca Allen, a health educator at Olin Health Center on campus, said that a residence hall director made her aware of K2 after a student had an unpleasant experience with it.
“The problem is we don’t know if it’s a problem,” Allen said. “It’s unregulated. We don’t know if it’s safe for human consumption. We also don’t know the potential shortterm consequences or potential for overdose. Even though it acts like marijuana, it is not marijuana.”
From what Allen has heard, the effects of K2 are a little more intense than marijuana. Users have reported to her heightened paranoia, tachycardia — increased heart rate — vomiting and muscle soreness. Allen said that alcohol is still the university’s largest substance abuse problem. She said that a 2008 survey of MSU students shows that marijuana smokers — those who would be most likely to try K2 — who used the drugs at least six or more times in a 30 day period are only 7 percent of the university’s population.
Nick said that a friend made him aware of K2 and he started using it in mid-November. He said he used to smoke marijuana fairly regularly but does not anymore. Instead, he uses K2 about every other day. He prefers K2 because it’s legal. Recently, he has experimented with another brand of the incense called “Dragon Smoke,” which he said he bought at In Flight in East Lansing.
The appeal of K2 is “bottom line, because it’s legal,” Nick said. “I would recommend it to people who don’t have the privilege to use marijuana for other reasons besides it being illegal. Go out and give it a try; it’s a nice experience.”