You might not have heard of it, but there’s a seriously dangerous drug that kids in most states can legally buy at a local retail store or even online for just $7 or so per gram. It’s sold in bright-colored packets (they look like oversized condom wrappers) and usually marketed as “herbal incense”… but the kids buying it and the adults selling it know that it’s really a chemical referred to as K2 or Spice. Kids consider it “fake marijuana,” because it promises a “legal high.”

In addition to quickly becoming popular among teens looking for a high — a 2011 National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) study showed that 11% of high school seniors reported using it in the past year — K2 has also become popular among adults subject to drug monitoring (for instance, those who are on probation following a drug arrest), because there aren’t many tests yet that can detect K2 in urine.

What few people realize (especially the naïve adolescents for whom this stuff is way too easy to buy) is that this drug can bring harmful, potentially even fatal consequences, such as suicides, car accidents and heart attacks. Despite this, K2 is becoming more and more popular. In fact, in just the first half of 2011 there were 567 K2-related calls to poison control centers in the US, compared with just 13 reported in 2009, according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers.


To get an expert perspective on K2, I called Marilyn Huestis, PhD, chief of chemistry and drug metabolism of NIDA in Baltimore. She explained to me that K2 actually is a synthetic chemical compound that’s relatively easy to manufacture and gets sprayed onto ordinary dried herbs, such as blue and white water lily or honeyweed. Like marijuana, it’s either rolled into cigarette papers or smoked from a bong.

Dr. Huestis told me that there are more than 100 varieties of the drug, some containing chemicals that are up to 100 times more powerful than THC, the active component in marijuana. Not that you’d expect manufacturers like this to scrupulously label their goods, but the danger is magnified because packages and contents that are identical in appearance may contain ingredients of widely varying strength. This is important to know, because it means that having tried K2 once or twice without ill effect is no proof that it will be safe the next time someone takes it.


K2 produces a high that is almost instantaneous, says Dr. Huestis — and here’s why that is particularly bad. The smoke contains chemicals that go from the lungs straight to the heart and from there to the brain, where they can heighten anxiety, cause panic attacks and hallucinations, compromise short-term memory, alter hormone production and compromise the immune system. Hospitals around the country have reported a surge in ER visits by teenagers “freaking out” after smoking K2, Dr. Huestis told me. If that’s not bad enough, K2 also speeds up the heart and even may cause heart attacks — for example, in just one week last fall, three Dallas teens had heart attacks after smoking K2 days and weeks earlier. (The doctors couldn’t prove that K2 caused the heart attacks, but the patients were otherwise healthy.)

Don’t rely on the law enforcers to keep this problem under control — they’re trying but without much success. In March 2011, the US Drug Enforcement Agency banned five types of K2 in the US. Sixteen states and even some counties and cities have outlawed it. But, according to Dr. Huestis, these measures have had little impact. Because K2 can be sold under so many different names, because it’s marketed as “incense” and because it’s available through so many different outlets, it has been difficult to stop or slow availability, she said.

Of course, depending on your locale, you and your neighbors might be able to make K2 harder to find by putting pressure in the right places — your city council, local business groups, etc. And it’s imperative to educate kids — and others vulnerable to substance abuse — about the true dangers of K2. Experimenting with it can have disastrous consequences.