K2: A Dangerous Peak to Climb

By Daniel Genis 10/27/14

The stuff is available not just in head shops where drug paraphernalia is sold, but even in gas stations. So what could be the harm?


It’s got a bunch of funny names: "Geeked Up," "Smacked," "Biohazard," "Cloud Nine," "Scooby Doo," etc. It’s cheap; only five dollars for a bag that has enough in it to get an entire high school grade stoned for 15 minutes because the effects don’t last that long; you smoke, and a quarter of an hour later it’s like you didn’t. Even though synthetic cannabinoids are technically illegal in most states, manipulation of the molecule that mimics THC keeps the stuff available in head shops where drug paraphernalia is sold and also in gas stations. So what could be the harm?

I never felt such fear in my life. Total psychosis and a terror that wouldn’t stop. I prayed for it to go away, but it lasted much longer than it should have. When the disorder in my thoughts calmed a bit, the violent vomiting began. I heaved until I could heave no more. I suppose I overdosed, but I didn’t actually have more than I usually do. The batches are so inconsistent, you never know what you’re going to get.

Mo, who prefers not to use his complete name because he is the owner of a successful trucking company with six figures of profit, has a wife, a house and a child. He "overdosed" on K2 yesterday, after about a year of using it. Mo has had problems with it before, depending on the batch, but thought that he found a brand which was safe. Until it wasn’t.

And don’t assume that Mo is naive to the use of substances. Many years ago, he had a serious problem with heroin and cocaine. To straighten out his life, he got on a methadone program and has conducted a typical life, except for his daily drink of dolophine, for six years now. Still, there was something missing, something to address the anxiety he lived with from as early as he could remember. He found a solution in smoking marijuana. A few puffs a day kept him straight, straight enough to run a successful company with several employees and millions invested in equipment. It was a success story, until the methadone program objected to the THC in Mo’s urine. Scared of being kicked off the program and the possible return to addiction that might result, Mo switched to smoking "Spice," available in every gas station in his area, a year ago. But he’ll never touch it again after yesterday.

I just buy it off the shelf. How can something so toxic be sold like that? And kids are into this? My heart raced and my stomach turned, but the worst was in my head, where the thoughts ran the rapids and the fear conquered my common sense. Now that I stopped- and I’ll never touch that poison again- I feel withdrawal symptoms. I am sick and sweaty, like I was years ago when I couldn’t get a bag of dope. And during this whole year of smoking that stuff, my thoughts changed. I know they did, because I never had any ideas of suicide before. I was never depressed, as far as I could tell. As I smoked more and more, since the effect doesn’t last long, my attitude towards life was changing. For the worse.

Poison control centers throughout America are familiar with the substances by now. After all, in the last two years, they have had about 8,000 "exposures" with help requested after someone smoked K2, or Spice, or Mr. Nice Guy… but what is this chemical that can cause seizures, psychotic episodes, tremors, and hallucinations? JWH-018, cannabicyclohexanol, JWH-073, and HU-210 are some of the chemicals found in the colorful sachets, which are decorated in a way to appeal to young people. The DEA has managed to classify some of the drugs as Schedule 1, meaning they have no medical purpose and are purely for abuse, but outlaw chemists, often in China, tweak the molecules in a race against legislators to keep the stuff on gas station shelves. The molecule used as an active ingredient, as the leaves in the bags are merely a carrier for it, changes along with the law. That is why Mo was sickened by the very brand he thought was safe to use. He’s lucky he didn’t suffer the fate of the 17-year-old girl who had multiple strokes, brain damage and then went blind after two weeks of daily use.

The drug is called K2 in honor of the mountain in the Himalayas that is the second highest peak after Everest. Meaning that this is the second best high; its analogue, marijuana, being the first. However, both benzodiazepines and opiates have been discovered in herbal blends. Spice is another misnomer, since it is often marketed as potpourri. The substance is popular everywhere that people are tested for drugs, since it does not come up as cannabis. There are special tests for its metabolites in urine, but they are expensive and used infrequently. Prisons are swamped with the drug, where it has become known as "Spike" because the Blood gang, whom distributes it, avoids the letter "C" to demonstrate its feelings about the Crip gang. Sold in little baggies for the price of two packs of Newports, the stuff is very common and just as unsafe. I’ve seen a man fight a wall after a morning hit of Spike. Some users believe that it is really potpourri they are smoking, while others consider it a blend of herbs. In fact, mirroring the THC molecule was first achieved in Israel back in 1988, but it was only in the last ten years that the substance was monetized, starting the war between legislators and chemists.

When MDMA exploded as a new drug for the youth to embrace, first in Britain and the European continent, then in America in the 1990’s, the precursor chemicals came out of Belarus and Russia. Nations where enforcement is lax and education is high, which are mostly the ones where Communism faded just recently, are excellent places to produce synthetic drugs for the Western world. China has no shortage of well-educated and underpaid chemists that are mercenaries for the shady companies which distribute K2. It’s not a new phenomenon; for decades North Korea has produced and exported very high quality amphetamines for the Asian market because of its need for hard currency. Satisfying America’s hunger for drugs is a great business for countries with questionable economies and corrupt law enforcement.

Looking at visits to emergency rooms in hospitals is a great way to track the spread of K2. Back in 2012, 11,400 people were admitted because of it, nationwide. But more current data suggests an interesting conclusion. Looking at the problem state by state, it becomes immediately obvious where it no longer exists. Two states basically have no more problems with K2, and they are Washington and Colorado, where marijuana has been legalized for recreational use.

If I could have just continued smoking my pot, this would never have happened to me. I tried what the shrinks suggested for panic attacks and anxiety. SSRI’s did nothing for me and benzos put me to sleep, which is bad for business. I knew what worked for me, but I couldn’t risk losing the program. Now, I don’t know what to do anymore. I won’t touch that stuff again and I can’t smoke pot because of the testing. All my life I have been treated like a criminal, simply for smoking marijuana, which is now legal in parts of the country. My yearlong experiment with this synthetic pot was a disaster, and I’m back to being some kind of outlaw despite the taxes I pay and work I do and family I have. I don’t understand why I have to live like this.

Mo’s thoughts are common in the states where marijuana is still illegal. Perhaps one day they will be anachronistic; the wind seems to be blowing in that direction. Having lived in countries where marijuana and hashish were part of the cityscape, I can attest that nothing drastic is likely to happen. Holland and Denmark do not have especially high crime rates or addiction problems. But that doesn’t help Mo right now, who still feels terrible as he withdraws from a year of K2 and worries about his anxiety. As the chemicals in the sparkly bags mutate, perhaps more tragedies will accumulate. In the meantime, my old friend suffered, while the law has left him in a hopeless position. Ingesting a chemical is always the responsibility of the user, but it’s only fair if he knows what it is, which is not a problem in the states of Colorado and Washington. Mo, however, had to learn the hard way. Luckily, he was experienced enough with psychoactive chemicals to escape the worst, but it gave him the scare of his life. How unfortunate that the same could happen to someone 20 years younger and without the insight of knowing it will go away? How unfortunate that this game between legislators and outlaw chemists is being played out on human subjects, whose very brains are the field of battle. And how unfortunate that it just takes a stop at a gas station to enter the world of K2 and Spice and whatever else they call it. And whatever the hell is in it.

(Update: In the several weeks since Mo's bad experience with K2, he has not touched it once, and after a period of withdrawal is feeling much better.)

Daniel Genis writes for Newsweek, The Daily Beast, the New York Daily News and Vice, among others. He is also the author of the novel Narcotica and a forthcoming memoir about his time in prison. He lives in Brooklyn, New York with his wife. He last wrote about the truth about drug treatment in prisonMore information is available here.

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Daniel Genis is a Russian-American writer who, at one time, was made famous by a polite string of robberies (he would apologize, take people’s cash from them, then return their wallets) in New York City’s financial district. He was eventually caught and served his time. Daniel is the author of the novel Narcotica. He can be found on Twitter and Linkedin.