May 4, 2012

Just what parents don’t need: another way for their kids to get high, or worse. And getting that buzz, that glow, that trip to an altered state is so easy.

There’s no need to bother with street dealers or big drug traffickers.

No, the stuff that can take youths (or anyone else) into a haze-induced world where anxiety attacks, convulsions, fast heart rates and raised blood pressure lurk can be purchased around the corner.

It’s available over the counter, perhaps in a store near you.

This week I got a call from Kenneth Barnes, former head of the youth advocacy group Reaching Out to Others Together (ROOT). Barnes was alarmed by reports of D.C. youths getting “wigged out” on a drug bought openly in the community. Parents, he said, had told him that the easily available drug was having a devastating impact on their children.

The drug is called “K2,” Barnes said, and is sold in the District under the street names “Kush” and “Abama.” Look for it, he said, in convenience stores or gas stations where young people are prevalent.

Four days ago, I did just that.

While my gas tank was being filled at the Exxon station in the 4500 block of Benning Road NE, I asked a clerk for Kush. She reached behind her and produced a shiny, colored plastic bag with “Kush” written on it. We were separated by glass but, at my request, she turned the bag around so I could read the label on the back. Several ingredients — none of which I recognized — were listed, along with the admonition “Not to be sold to children.” She said the price was $8. I declined to buy it.

My experience at a gas station at Brentwood Road and V Street NE was easier. I didn’t even have to ask. Bags of Kush were on display inside the cashier’s glass enclosure. The clerk told me a bag cost $25. Again, I declined.

I learned much more after my gas station visits.

K2, Kush, Fake Weed, Spice, Blaze and Red X Dawn are only some of the brand names of “fake pot” sold at retail outlets in the United States and online, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Washington bureau spokesman, Jeffrey Scott. A Feb. 29 DEA news release explained the common denominator: These are smokeable herbal products consisting of plant material that has been coated with research chemicals that claim to mimic THC, the active ingredient in marijuana.

The DEA took emergency action last year to declare the five chemicals used to make these products — JWH-018, JWH-073, JWH-200, CP-47,497 and cannabicyclohexanol — illegal. Those chemicals, the agency said, represent “an imminent threat to public health and safety.” They have been designated Schedule 1 substances, a classification reserved for material with a high potential for abuse that has no currently accepted medical use in the United States.

So does that mean the bags for sale at convenience stores around town are illegal? Not necessarily.

The chemical ingredients are banned. But without testing the ingredients in the bags, it’s hard to say whether the products are outside the law. What’s more, the manufacturers of synthetic drugs are cagey. They can easily change a product’s name or switch ingredients to mask their intended purpose.

So where does that leave us?

The alarm sounded by District parents is being heard across the country.

The DEA cites emergency-room physicians’ reports of individuals who have ingested K2 and other fake-pot drugs experiencing convulsions, vomiting, disorientation and anxiety attacks. Federal investigators are seeking manufacturers and suppliers of these drugs; their focus is not on retail outlets like those I visited.

Some states have banned synthetic “fake pot” drugs. The District has not.

K2 is not just a city or emergency-room problem.

The Post reported last year on the use of synthetic marijuana at the Naval Academy, where at least eight midshipmen were expelled for using it. Navy investigators got a break when, as reported, a midshipman smoking synthetic marijuana began having seizures.

What’s a parent to do?

Make clear to your children that smokeable“fake pot” is a synthetic product arguably more dangerous than marijuana. Next, demand that local authorities crack down on the purveyors of that stuff.

Clemson University chemist John Huffman told ABC News in 2010, “Anybody that tries [K2] is like playing Russian roulette. You don’t know what you’re getting. It’s just insane. Anybody who uses it is out of their tree.”

Huffman should know. What began as research — an undergraduate developed K2 in Huffman’s lab — has led to several banned chemicals (including JWH-018, JWH-073 and JWH-200) bearing Huffman’s initials.

That’s dangerous stuff that our nation’s capital can do without.

kingc@washpost.com