WASHINGTON -- The Drug Enforcement Administration announced Wednesday that it would use its emergency powers to ban synthetic marijuana for one year, giving pot dealers across the country something to be thankful for when they sit down before their turkeys this week.
The synthetic weed, known as "K2" or "spice" and generally sold in head shops, is popular among police officers, members of the military and others looking to avoid failing a drug test, said one hemp store owner who sells the product. The high from marijuana is created by its main active ingredient THC, but also by the plant's several dozen poorly understood cannabinoids. The DEA had banned any drug containing natural or synthetic THC, but has not addressed the cannabinoids. K2 has been legal because it uses synthetic versions of the cannabinoids rather than THC; because drug tests look for THC, users could smoke spice and not get caught by supervisors. But because it doesn't include THC, it gives users a different, lesser high than real pot. Because it has not been carefully studied, there is no certainty over whether it is as safe as marijuana. It is often labeled as incense and contains warnings against human consumption.
Just as the threatened ban on the caffeinated booze drink Four Loko caused a run on convenience stores, the DEA's announcement about K2's impending ban threatens to send hordes of consumers to water pipe outposts, as users will have 30 days to hoard the fake drug before the ban goes into place. "A Notice of Intent to Temporarily Control was published in the Federal Register today to alert the public to this action," the DEA announced in a statement. "After no fewer than 30 days, DEA will publish in the Federal Register a Final Rule to Temporarily Control these chemicals for at least 12 months with the possibility of a six-month extension. They will be designated as Schedule I substances, the most restrictive category, which is reserved for unsafe, highly abused substances with no medical usage."
A Schedule I listing would put it in a more restrictive category than cocaine.
"These products are a predictable outgrowth of criminal marijuana prohibition," said Paul Armentano, a top official with the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. "As prohibition is apt to do, it has driven the production of a commodity into the hands of unregulated, unknown dealers, driven up the potency of the commodity, and in doing so created a scenario where the consumer is faced with a potentially greater health risks than they would be had they simply had the legal choice to use the product they actually desired, in this case cannabis. Given that most manufacturers of these products are overseas and not subject to U.S. laws and regulations, it is unlikely that the DEA's action will in any way halt the dissemination, use or misuse of these products among the public."
Acting DEA chief Michele Leonhart, who has been nominated by Obama to become permanent head, said that she hoped the government's action would reduce interest in the drug -- a vain hope that flies in the face of logic and the nation's long and complicated history with drug use and drug policy. "Today's action will call further attention to the risks of ingesting unknown compounds and will hopefully take away any incentive to try these products," said Leonhart.
History says that the effect will be just the opposite: When the government pushes one drug into the black market, producers and users look for a ready alternative, often one that is more dangerous than the one that was banned. In several states that moved to ban K2, proprietors quickly began stocking shelves with substitutes. The website K2incense.org, for instance, advertises "two NEW K2 products, NOT COVERED BY ANY BANS!" The publicity will likely only pique interest in the fake pot; K2incense.org brags that it was "featured on Fox News."
"Our concern is that criminalizing possession and distribution of K2 is ceding control to the criminal market and organized crime. When you do that, the criminals decide what goes into this product," said Grant Smith, who studies the issue for the Drug Policy Alliance. "They're taking the easy way out. They should be figuring out what's in these products and regulating them."
Ryan Grim is the author of This Is Your Country On Drugs: The Secret History of Getting High in America