COLUMBIA, Mo. | Authorities in 13 states thought they were acting to curb a public health threat when they outlawed a form of synthetic marijuana known as K2, a concoction of dried herbs sprayed with chemicals.
But before the laws took effect, many stores that did a brisk business in fake pot had already gotten around the bans by making slight changes to K2’s chemical formula, creating knockoffs with names such as “K3,” “Heaven Scent” and “Syn.”
“It’s kind of pointless,” said University of Missouri sophomore Brittany May after purchasing a K2 alternative called “BoCoMo Dew” at a Columbia smoke shop. “They’re just going to come up with another thing.”
Barely six months after Kansas adopted the nation’s first ban on K2, even police acknowledge that the laws are all but meaningless because merchants can so easily offer legal alternatives.
Until a year ago, products such as K2 were virtually unknown in the United States. Clemson University chemistry professor John Huffman developed the compounds in 1995 while researching the effect of cannabinoids, the active compounds found in marijuana.
Mr. Huffman had little reason to think his lab work would morph into a commercial product. He calls users of K2 and its chemical cousins “idiots,” noting the lack of research into the substance’s effects, which include reports of rapid heartbeats and high blood pressure. It’s often labeled as incense with warnings against human consumption.
Yet Mr. Huffman has little faith that the bans designed to combat the problem will deter manufacturers or consumers. “It’s not going to be effective,” he said. “Is the ban on marijuana effective?”
He also doubts that law enforcement agencies will be able to devote the necessary resources to identify such complex creations as “1-pentyl-3-(1-naphthoyl)indole,” the substance’s scientific name. The compound sold as K2 is also known by the scientific shorthand of JWH-018, a nod to its creator’s initials.
“The guy in the average crime lab isn’t really capable of doing the kind of sophisticated tests necessary” to identify the substance, he said.
The bans were adopted by lawmakers or public health officials in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Hawaii, Iowa, Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Dakota and Tennessee.
Missouri state Sen. Kurt Schaefer, a Republican from Columbia, acknowledges that the marketplace has quickly adapted to his state’s ban. He also thinks that the new law, along with a wave of media reports, is an effective deterrent, especially for potential users under 18, and their parents.
“We’ve at least minimized the threat to public safety,” he said.
The Missouri statute identifies five synthetic cannabinoids by name, but leaves out many others.
Police and public health experts say that users seeking the more benign high associated with marijuana may be unprepared for the synthetic version. Users of K2 describe a more intense but shorter high, with effects lasting about 20 minutes as opposed to several hours.
Mr. Schaefer said lawmakers may consider a broader ban next year if the law proves ineffective. He also drew a sharp distinction between synthetic marijuana and the natural alternative.