Bill seeks Virginia ban on sale of synthetic marijuana

By Caitlin Gibson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 5, 2010; 12:32 AM

Legislation that would outlaw the use and sale of synthetic marijuana, which is sold as "herbal incense" under the brand names K2 and Spice, has been introduced for next year's Virginia General Assembly session by state Sen. Mark R. Herring (D-Loudoun).

The proposed bill would create penalties for possession, sale or distribution of the product, establishing guidelines that are largely in accord with the provisions for punishment for marijuana use and possession, according to a statement from Herring's office.

K2, produced in China and Korea, is made with herbs and spices that are sprayed with a synthetic compound similar to THC, the active ingredient in marijuana. K2, which has been sold since 2006 for about $30 to $40 for a three-gram bag, can be bought legally in Virginia and is sold as an incense product at convenience stores, authorities said.

The effects of K2 are said to be similar to those of marijuana - sleepiness, relaxation and lowered blood pressure - but many users report the opposite, according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers. K2 often causes a racing heartbeat, anxiety, elevated blood pressure and nausea, the association said.

Police have reported that at higher doses, the product can cause hallucinations, elevated heart rate, seizures and unconsciousness or coma.

"The fact that these dangerous substances are legal in Virginia is unacceptable," Herring said. "The effects of synthetic marijuana are extremely harmful to those who use it. It is clear that usage of this gateway drug is on the rise among the youth in our community and in Virginia, and we need to confront this serious issue head on."

Michelle White, president of the Virginia Drug Court Association, said that many drug courts are observing a significant increase in the number of cases involving synthetic marijuana, "particularly youth enrolled in the juvenile drug courts, because the substance is not detected on a marijuana drug screen and remains readily and legally accessible."

Leesburg Police Chief Joseph Price said neighboring jurisdictions in Northern Virginia first reported seeing cases of K2 in late spring and early summer. Price called attention to the problem in October after several cases in Loudoun, including one that led to hospitalization. Price said he would encourage legislation to outlaw K2 and asked local convenience stores to stop carrying it.

"Although the product is being marketed as incense, many of those purchasing it . . . are doing so to achieve a legal high, since currently it is not a violation in the commonwealth," Price said. "It is also obvious that most store proprietors know how it is being used."

K2 users are typically teens who smoke the product, police said.

The American Association of Poison Control Centers reported more than 1,500 overdoses nationally resulting from use of K2 during the first nine months of this year, and more than 352 nationwide emergency room incidents.

Ten states have adopted legislation banning the product, and others are taking similar steps to address the problem, authorities said.

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