KANSAS CITY, Missouri - Lawmakers in Kansas, Missouri and 11 others states banned the product commonly known as “K2” earlier this year.
However, you might not know it, based on what continues to fly off the shelves at Kansas City area coffee shops, gas stations and head shops.
The new products go by names like “K3,” “C4,” “Cloud 10” or “Syn Incense,” but they are all a concoction of dried herbs sprayed with chemicals, just like its outlawed predecessor.
For now, the knock-offs remain legal as law enforcement and crime labs try to determine their molecular ingredients. Medical experts warn that lack of knowledge is what can make smoking the incense a scary trip for some users.
Post-ban business boom
At the Coffee Wonk in Midtown Kansas City, owner Micah Riggs told NBC Action News hot cups of java are far from his best seller.
His customers are forking over their cash for “ Syn Incense ,” a mix of dried herbs sold in several different flavors.
Even though the packages warn, “Not for human consumption,” the transaction comes with a wink and a nod. By marketing it as incense, domestic sellers have managed to evade federal regulation.
At $12 per gram, it is obvious to authorities that the incense is not being used as potpourri. Instead, it is being rolled and smoked—the latest “legal high.” The herbs are sprayed with a chemical meant to mimic the effects of marijuana.
By the time the ban took effect on August 28 , Riggs had done his research and was ready with the line of new “Syn Incense” products.
Riggs said publicity the ban gave him a business boom once K2 became illegal.
“The ban has been very effective for me,” said Riggs. “My sales are better, but as far as the intent of the law, I think it’s been a complete waste of time.”
Law enforcement struggle to enforce ban
Sgt. Reyne Reyes with the Kansas City Police Department’s drug unit admitted the new ban is very difficult to enforce.
For one, there is no field test for the main K2 compound, like there is for marijuana. That is why the products have to be sent to the crime lab for extensive testing.
In most cases, manufacturers are slightly tweaking the molecules in the chemical to make sure they do not include JWH-018, the compound used in K2.
“It makes it very difficult to enforce the law,” said Reyes. “Especially when they have dedicated chemists constantly trying to change these molecular compounds.”
For now, she said drug detectives will be visiting business owners to test those products for K2.
Potential health dangers
The game of cat and mouse concerns Dr. Anthony Scalzo, the director of toxicology at St. Louis University.
Click on the videos to watch our entire interview with Scalzo who saw the spike in K2 cases and reactions from patients
Scalzo is also the director of Missouri’s Poison Control Center , and was the first to notice the spike in K2-related emergency room visits last year. The numbers have jumped from just 13 nationwide in 2009 to more than 1,500 this year.
Scalzo said there are likely many more cases because many go unreported to poison control centers. The toxicologist said patients have reported elevated heart rates, vomiting, seizures and hallucinations after reporting they smoked K2.
“We had a 14-year-old in Missouri who nearly jumped out of a fifth-story window because of this bad trip experience,” said Scalzo.
Investigators say the substance could have played a part in the death of David Rozga, an Iowa teenager who committed suicide last June shortly after smoking K2. Rozga had graduated from high school one week earlier and was planning to attend college in the fall.
“There was nothing to show he was troubled or depressed,” said Scalzo. “And I’ve heard the same thing from other people: that they’ve experienced very negative feelings from smoking this. That great concerns me.”
The research-grade chemicals were first developed in the lab of Clemson University chemist John Huffman , who has reiterated the chemicals were not intended for human use. Huffman has added that the effects in humans have not been thoroughly studied and could have toxic effects.
Scalzo said the danger is not knowing what is in the products or who is making them.
“The issue of how we can control all this? That’s huge,” he said. “It’s beyond my comprehension of what we can do as a society to fix that.”
Products seized and tested
The Coffee Wonk’s business has been snuffed out since the end of last month.
On Sept. 27, Kansas City police officers responded to an armed robbery at the building near 34th and Broadway . They noticed Riggs’ K2-like products and called drug detectives, who confiscated the “Syn” and sent it to the crime lab to be tested.
Riggs said police told him if the tests came back clean, they would return the product. However, more than two weeks later, he is still waiting.
Meantime, the Kansas City-based company that manufactures “Syn” has produced lab tests for Riggs and shared them with NBC Action News, claiming