It's labeled K2 on the bag. Some call it gold spice, silver spice or even skunk. And the Georgia Poison Control Center calls it "scary spice."
It's K2, a legal, synthetic version of marijuana.
"When the calls started coming in, we didn't know what it was," said Dr. Gaylord Lopez, director of the Georgia Poison Control Center. "People who smoke marijuana don't end up in the hospital."
Both Tennessee and Georgia lawmakers are trying to pass legislation that would make K2 a controlled substance.
While local police and doctors can't verify if K2 is being sold in Southeastern Tennessee and North Georgia, it is sold in Nashville, Atlanta and Memphis. Made primarily in China, it's sold in smoke shops, convenience stores and on the Internet for $30 to $40 a bag.
A 20-year-old University of Tennessee at Chattanooga student, who buys K2 off the Internet, said he has to smoke more K2 than marijuana to get high. He wished to remain anonymous based on the sensitive nature of the topic.
After he watched some of his friends pass out from K2, he stopped using it, the student said. But he said making one type of synthetic drug illegal won't fix the problem.
"It's just one of many," he said. "You can ban one, but they can pop out another one."
The K2 compound was developed in the 1990s when organic chemist John Huffman of Clemson University was doing an experiment to produce synthetic cannabinoids and came up with a compound he named JWH-018.
Dr. Huffman published his work in 1998, then wrote a chapter with details on the compound for a book published in 2008. After that book was published, K2 began appearing in European stores and eventually made its way to the United States.
"I thought it was sort of humorous originally," Dr. Huffman told the Chattanooga Times Free Press. "But since I've heard the reports of people getting sick, I don't think it should be used."
The most common way to make K2 is to spray the chemical compound onto spices, dry the mixture and bag it. But the compound can be made only with ingredients from a scientific lab, Dr. Huffman said.
As the fake pot's popularity spreads, police say their hands are tied to control it.
"We know it's out there, but there's nothing we can do about it," said Georgia Bureau of Investigation Agent John Bankhead.
K.J. Jordan, special agent in charge of the Middle Tennessee Drug Investigation Division, said K2 is "not marijuana and it's not cigarettes, so kids are getting a free pass."
Shelby County Drug Court Judge Tim Dwyer said he began to notice in January that several of his 250 drug rehabilitation program participants were substituting K2 for marijuana.
"I don't want them to substitute one drug for another," Judge Dwyer said.
After Sen. Reginald Tate, D-Memphis, heard about the problem Judge Dwyer was having, he introduced Senate Bill 2982. If enacted, the bill would broaden a Class A misdemeanor offense to include anyone who knowingly produces, distributes or possesses synthetic cannabinoids, Mr. Tate said.
The bill now is pending in the House after unanimously passing the Senate on March 8, records show. An identical bill in the House is on the calendar for the Criminal Practice and Procedure Subcommittee for March 28.
In Georgia, state Rep. Jay Neal, R-LaFayette, introduced HB 1309, which would add synthetic marijuana to the state's list of controlled substances. That bill is pending in a House committee.
After introducing the bill, Rep. Neal said he heard about several Roswell, Ga., teenagers who were in intensive care after using the drug, which made the issue more important to him.
"There's a lot of interest about keeping it out the hands of young people," he said.
No one knows exactly how toxic K2 components are, because experiments have been done only with lab mice, Dr. Huffman said. Synthetic substances also can stay in a person's body for weeks and have long-term effects, he said.
"It's dangerous and should not be used," Dr. Huffman said of K2.
WHAT IS K2?
K2 is a chemical compound with a similar consistency to marijuana that is sprayed on or mixed into spices. The spices then can be rolled and smoked, similar to a marijuana cigarette. Organic chemist John Huffman of Clemson University created the sythetic compound JWH-018 in the mid-1990s. In 2008, when a book published details of its makeup, the drug K2 began to appear in European stores.
Source: Dr. John Huffman
Nashville authorities said cases of users being hospitalized are popping up in the area.
"Within the last month, we started to notice it," said Donna Taylor, a Tennessee Poison Center certified specialist.
The Nashville center has received about 10 emergency calls related to K2 use, Ms. Taylor said. Users are experiencing higher anxiety and more seizures from use of the synthetic drug compared with natural marijuana, she said.
In Georgia, the poison center has dealt with about 20 cases of K2 users who have ended up in the emergency room, Dr. Lopez said. It's alarming, he said, that there are spikes in blood pressure and heart rate among 15- to 18-year-olds who are smoking the spices.
"We don't know anything about the potential intoxicants that are in the chemical process," he said.