COLUMBUS - Spice, red dragon, genie, skunk and more commonly K2. By any of these names, an herbal incense known to cause a marijuana-like high when smoked is gaining popularity in Columbus, causing some concern throughout the community.
Legal in the state of Nebraska, K2 is a mixture of herbs sprayed with cannabinoids that is sold as incense in businesses such as convenience stores and smoke shops. It can easily be purchased online.
Although the packaging clearly states "not for human consumption," the substance has become a favorite for people looking to avoid the legal repercussions associated with marijuana possession or safely pass a urine analysis.
"They aren't labeled as something to smoke," said Ron Kirschnar, medical toxicologist with Nebraska Regional Poison Center in Omaha, "but that's what most people do with it."
Sue Deyke, emergency department director at Columbus Community Hospital, said local health officials are aware of K2 use in the community, but she couldn't confirm any cases where users have been hospitalized.
"We stay educated on the new drugs of abuse in our area," said Deyke, who recently shared K2 information with staff at CCH after attending the state emergency nurses conference.
Concerns are that the substance, because of it's synthetic make-up, can actually be up to 10 times more potent than marijuana. When sold as incense, the herbs and sprays comprising each package of K2 remain relatively unregulated.
"It's kind of a crap shoot," said Kirschnar. "If you're going to use those things, you don't really know what you're getting."
Kirschnar said only about 15 cases where K2 use has led to a need for medical treatment have been reported to the poison center. But, he expects that number to be higher because they aren't always contacted by hospitals during situations like drug overdoses.
Calling the substance "relatively new to this area," Kirschnar said K2 use is more prevalent in younger crowds.
Columbus Public High School Assistant Principal R. Jon Frey said the district has "seen evidence in the past year to support the fact that there is involvement with K2 use among Columbus youth."
"Obviously, we are very concerned about K2," he added. "It is just the next thing in a long line of serious concerns we have regarding pressures students face today. We will continue to work with our law enforcement partners to monitor this situation just as we do teen alcohol and drug use, harassment and gang activity."
CPS Superintendent Troy Loeffelholz reiterated this saying "it is on our radar and part of our message to students about the possible side effects and possible deadly results of using it."
Administrators at Lakeview and Columbus Scotus schools reported no direct knowledge of K2 use among students there, but Scotus President Wayne Morfeld said "I am not foolish enough to believe use could not have occurred within the student body."
It's not as if the product is hard to come by - requiring only $20 and a quick Internet search or short drive to obtain.
At Smokers Outlet on 23rd Street, a form of herbal incense called Wicked X can be purchased for $21.
Employees there declined to comment on the product, which is kept behind the counter and, like any item in the store, not sold to individuals under the age of 18.
The product, according to a representative from Smokers Outlet's corporate office in McCook, is sold at all five of the company's Nebraska locations, but there isn't a huge demand for it. In some cities, their competition also carries herbal incense, she said before declining to answer further questions.
Columbus' other smoke shop, BJ's Tobacco Outlet Inc., does not carry herbal incense like K2.
"It's a dangerous item for people to use," said BJ's co-owner Bill Delp. " ... It's one of those areas that we don't want to go into businesswise."
Delp said it's obvious people purchase the incense with consumption in mind.
Despite not carrying the product, the store receives about 20 calls per week from people looking to obtain K2 - something that Delp said, referencing the fact it won't show up in a drug test, doesn't surprise him.
K2 is banned in 13 states including Kansas, Missouri and Iowa, and the Federal Drug Enforcement Administration considers it a "drug or chemical of concern." In July, the Iowa Board of Pharmacy classified the herbal incense as an imitation controlled substance capable of causing panic attacks, elevated blood pressure, rapid heart rate, vomiting, hallucinations and seizures if consumed.
Kirschnar called these side effects "somewhat concerning," but said most cases of K2 use only require individuals to be isolated in a quiet place and possibly given a sedative.
The cannabinoids added to herbs in each package were first developed in the mid-1990s by researchers at Clemson University conducting lab experiments on mice to study the compounds' effects on the brain.
"Later on, they were rediscovered by some creative people who wanted to abuse drugs," said Kirschnar.
Unaware of any previous talks in the Nebraska Legislature to prohibit K2 and similar substances in the state, District 22 Sen. Arnie Stuthman of Platte Center believes a ban should be considered.
"I think something should be introduced in the coming year to make it illegal here," he said.