Fake Reefer Madness: Kansas lawmakers' paranoid rush to ban synthetic marijuana
By Peter Rugg
published: February 18, 2010
Bags of K2, as they appeared when The Pitch conducted its own scientific research.
When K2 was in stock, the line of people waiting to buy it sometimes stretched to the sidewalk outside Sacred Journey in Lawrence.
Officials from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the Johnson County Sheriff's Office and the Lawrence Police Department conducted a search-and-seizure inside Sacred Journey.
The Kansas state representatives gathered for today's hearing have been working for just 10 days of a 90-day session. This year, the three-month legislative session hardly seems long enough to solve all the state's problems. The state legislators are facing a projected budget shortfall of $400 million. (As a result of last year's budget cuts, public schools already have lost 3,700 teachers. The state also has closed three minimum-security prisons, cut its reimbursements to doctors in the Medicaid program by 10 percent, and stopped paying for some seniors' dental care). But legislators will spend the next few hours arguing about fake weed.
It's Tuesday, January 19. The half-dozen members of the Kansas House Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee seem at ease despite the tense atmosphere in a packed room that's painted and carpeted like the lobby of a large dentist's office. The only item on the agenda is a bill that would criminalize two synthetic cannabinoid compounds: JWH-073 and JWH-018, which can bond to brain receptors and produce a high similar to that of marijuana. The chemicals are the active ingredients in a product called K2. It's packaged in tiny bags that look as if they're filled with potpourri, and it's sold in a couple of head shops on the eastern edge of the state.
It's the day after the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. That makes it tough for anyone to speak in front of the committee because the meeting was announced on Thursday of last week, and those testifying must submit written testimony 24 hours in advance.
Despite the short notice, eight representatives from various Kansas law-enforcement agencies have been able to prepare remarks and make the trip to Topeka. Among them is Johnson County forensic scientist Jeremy Morris, who one week earlier stood with the bill's sponsor, Rep. Robert Olson, a Republican from Olathe, at a press conference urging a ban. (Three days before the press conference, Olson told The Pitch: "The police were the ones that were pushing for it. I don't know much about it myself. I've been listening to the police, and they have a lot of concerns." Though he wasn't familiar with any scientific research on K2, he said, "I've got a daughter in high school, and this is a dangerous drug. The concern is selling it to kids.")
Morris' statement to the committee is essentially the same as it was at Olson's press conference: that K2 is a sort of super weed, able get a smoker higher than any real marijuana, while paralyzing unsuspecting teens in dreamless, dark comas. Based on the heavy law-enforcement presence, it looks as if today is about cops writing a law they want to enforce.
When police officers step up to add to Morris' testimony, they greet legislators on a familiar, first-name basis.
Their testimony is a weird mix of Internet innuendo and third-hand anecdotes. One officer says the first thing his department did upon hearing about K2 was search YouTube for clips and read the video comments. Another says he heard about a blog telling of a teen who went into a coma for 12 hours after smoking K2. A woman who works with high-school students says she fears for the teachers if a student goes into a violent frenzy from synthetic cannabinoids.
"I asked one student, and he said he smoked it and his insides were on fire," she says. "I know one was driving after he had smoked it with a friend, and they described the houses as looking small, like everything was in a video game. So their perception was clearly altered."
Speakers claim that the synthetic cannabinoids are chemically far more potent than marijuana, and they compare K2 with hallucinogens such as LSD.
(Full disclosure: The Pitch conducted its own clinical trial of K2 in the parking lot of its Crossroads office in November 2009, shortly after area television stations and newspapers ran stories about this new, legal teen scourge. Six human guinea pigs participated in that test. One became unbearably self-conscious; another grew nauseated and had to lie down; two found everything in the office hysterically funny for about 20 minutes; one's eyelids lowered to half-mast like Garfield's; and one left to buy a soda, then reappeared and shouted, "Apples!" The remaining testers laughed for no discernible reason. Most of the smokers reported feeling clearheaded within 30 minutes. While they liked a legal alternative that didn't contribute blood money to violent South American drug cartels, they'd just as soon spend $10 or more for the real thing. For a more detailed description of the research methodology and results, search the Plog archives at pitch.com for "Product review: Will K2 synthetic marijuana get you high?")
Sitting in the back rows are K2 supporters. Natalie McAnulla, who owns a Lawrence store called Sacred Journey, is here. McAnulla took over Sacred Journey last year after being an employee at the store, and by that time, K2 was already on the shelves. Also present is Jon Sloan, who owns Lawrence's Bouncing Bear Botanicals, which also stocks K2 and has been McAnulla's supplier. The stores had been selling K2 for months before it caught on with the public. Sales began taking off in the fall of 2009. Then the media picked up the story, and lines started forming into the street.
In his brief testimony, Sloan says he does not allow anyone under 18 to purchase K2 and that he has helped distribute the product for a Maryland supplier.
John Knox, the attorney for Sacred Journey, argues that there is no research available on the cannabinoids' benign or harmful properties, and that banning them without further study would be shortsighted. If he'd wanted to, he also could have argued that criminalizing K2 would mean a loss in revenue for the cash-strapped state: In December, Sacred Journey generated $20,000 in sales tax on that product alone.
"There are lots of drugs that can be used to get high," Knox tells the legislators. "Alcohol can be used to get high. And we know alcohol causes a lot of deaths. But we don't make it illegal."
"We're not here to compare this to things that aren't in the proposed legislation," says the committee chairwoman, Pat Colloton, a Leawood Republican who raised no similar objections when police officers compared K2 with LSD, Ecstasy and THC.
Knox doesn't respond, but the last three rows erupt in hooting and jeers.
"Inquisitor!" shouts one bearded young man.
Other than this outburst, most of the hearing is calm and respectful. The exception is Lance Kinzer, an Olathe Republican with a butch buzz cut, who runs a smug, adversarial line of questioning whenever a speaker questions the need for a ban.
This is most obvious when Hudson Luce shuffles from his chair to the microphone. His gray sweater has holes in it, his khakis are frayed, and his receding silver hair is swept back into a messy ponytail.
He's a U.S. patent attorney with a doctorate in physical organic chemistry.
"These cannabinoids and their receptors play an active role in controlling immune response and inflammation, as well as analgesia and the treatment of alcoholism," Luce testifies. "Cannabinoids have also recently been patented by a group at the Department of Health and Human Services for their neuroprotective and antioxidant capabilities. Other cannabinoids and analogs show great promise in treatment of neuroflammatory disorders, such as multiple sclerosis, Huntington's disease, Parkinson's disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, amyloid formation in Alzheimer's disease, and many others. Also, cannabinoids show promise as treatments for atherosclerosis and breast cancer. JWH-018, the active ingredient in K2, is itself the subject of two U.S. patents owned by Roche Biotechnology for its use as a neuroprotective and anti-inflammatory agent."
"Why do you think high-school kids should smoke it and get high?" Kinzer asks.
"I don't think anyone should smoke anything," Luce responds. "Smoking anything — tobacco, K2 — carries significant health risks."
As the meeting draws to an end, K2's defenders seem hopeful. The rep from Kansas City, Kansas, a Democrat named Stan Frownfelter, preaches personal responsibility, saying they might as well ban airplane glue.
Less than a week later, every member of the committee votes in favor of legislation banning the synthetics. It is the first act of the legislative session. Shortly after that, the Senate passes its own, similar bill.
"The cops clearly had notice. They had all these uncited, well-prepared speaches. We had three or four days to mount a really weak opposition," McAnulla later says. "It was like, no matter what was said, the outcome was already decided."
If Kansas becomes the first state in the country to ban synthetic cannabinoids, and does it solely on the testimony of fewer than a dozen cops on one gray afternoon in Topeka, it won't only lose out on revenue from head-shop taxes. It could strangle research that might lead to treatments for neurodegenerative diseases.
Luce's January 19 testimony was slightly flawed: A spokesman for Roche tells The Pitch that the Switzerland-based pharmaceutical research development company has no patents related to JWH-018.
Luce later blames this error on the pressures of writing testimony on K2 with just 12 hours' notice. But his argument remains sound. Luce had the company wrong, but synthetic cannabinoids are the subject of two U.S. patents owned by the University of Connecticut, and a number of companies (including Roche) are researching their pharmaceutical potential.
In the 1980s, the only cannabinoids were compounds based on THC, some made by the Pfizer pharmaceutical company. Meanwhile, Sterling Winthrop Pharmaceutical was trying to develop anti-inflammatory drugs and found that certain cannabinoids worked, but there weren't many types available.
At South Carolina's Clemson University, Professor John Huffman's students developed 15 synthetic cannabinoids and published their work in 1994, naming the compounds with Huffman's initials, JWH. Huffman can't be certain how this work went from his lab to new-age shops, but he has a theory.
In 2008, he contributed a chapter to a book titled Cannabinoid Receptors. He suspects that Korean and Chinese entrepreneurs used the information to develop and sell a plant-growth hormone. That year, a German blogger wrote about a synthetic pot called "Spice Gold," made with JWH compounds, and word spread on the Web. "Once something gets out, given modern communications, it's gangbusters," he says. Making a synthetic cannabinoid, he says, is a two-step process using commercially available chemicals.
"I think anybody that smokes it is stupid," Huffman says. "I have nothing against recreational drugs, but if you don't know the long-term consequences or toxicity, you're an idiot to take it." Many scientific journals have published the results of marijuana studies, he notes. But of K2, he says, "I've never seen anything in any peer-reviewed journal."
Huffman says preventing people from using K2 recreationally is a good idea, but banning synthetic cannabinoids isn't.
Marijuana is a controlled substance, he points out. "If you forget California and just go according to federal law, it's a crime to produce, sell or use [marijuana]. On the other hand, the National Institute on Drug Abuse, which funds our work, can supply researchers with marijuana cigarettes. And they do. So you probably want to make it a controlled substance, but simply criminalizing it is not a good idea."
A professor of organic chemistry, Huffman says he does not have the background to judge how well the JWH compounds would work for medicinal purposes. He has provided JWH compounds to a scientist from the University of Kentucky, who is working on a patch that would apply doses for patients with nausea who are unable to swallow pills or don't have access to medicinal marijuana. "It works, as far as I know, but maybe not as well as a couple of other things she [the Kentucky researcher] has looked at."
And Huffman knows firsthand about claims that K2 can help with pain management. "My ex-wife has multiple sclerosis. There's been a great deal of research in Europe and Canada on cannabinoids to treat MS, and apparently it's effective in not curing the disease but relieving some of the symptoms," he says.
Despite that research, Lithuania, Latvia, Germany, Russia, Sweden, Estonia and the UK have criminalized JWH-018 in the past year.
"Outside of a week ago, I didn't even know these substances existed," says Casey Johnson, 58, who runs Johnson County Clinical Trials, an independent company that specializes in working with pharmaceutical companies on drug research. His company helps with the human-trial stage of vaccine studies. Following the outcry over K2, he started to examine the limited research. A cursory look into the history of cannabinoids shows that they have potential to help treat neurodegenerative diseases, Johnson says.
The human brain has two cannabinoid receptors, CB1 and CB2. Researchers believe that if a cannabinoid bonds with CB1, it produces a euphoric sensation. CB2, meanwhile, is the receptor responsible for marijuana's therapeutic effects: an anti-inflammatory of the central nervous system; a treatment for depression; an appetite stimulant for HIV and chemotherapy patients and those with other illnesses whose symptoms include nausea and vomiting. Many synthetic cannabinoids bond only to one or the other of those receptors, but the ones that Kansas wants to ban have the ability to bond with both. Neurodegenerative diseases that could theoretically be treated with synthetic cannabinoids include Alzheimer's disease, ALS, Parkinson's disease and Huntington's disease.
Johnson says there have been no real tests on the synthetic cannabinoids. "Research is a monstrous wheel with lots of cogs on it, and to truly evaluate this is a multiple-million-dollar project," he says. "It strikes me as inappropriate and shortsighted to make this illegal. But on the other hand, it seems shortsighted to say it should be smoked without knowing the potential side effects."
Over the last six years, Kansas has spent hundreds of millions of dollars in an effort to convince the world that the state values exactly this kind of research. In 2004, the Kansas Economic Growth Act announced a $581 million initiative to start the Kansas Bioscience Authority, whose mission is to "build world-class research capacity, foster the formation and growth of bioscience startups, support expansion of the state's bioscience clusters, and facilitate industrial expansion and attraction."
The KBA's goal is to raise bioscience investment in Kansas to more than $5 billion; to date, it has reportedly created more than 1,000 jobs, $92 million in capital investments and $37 million in research funding.
One of the KBA's beneficiaries is a five-minute drive from McAnulla's Sacred Journey store. Over the last two years, Lawrence-based Pinnacle Technology has received $750,000 from the KBA to help fund its work with animals, researching sensors in the brain and chemical activity to develop treatments for depression, Parkinson's disease, Huntington's disease, Alzheimer's disease and seizures.
"Our business revenue grew 300 percent in the last year, and we're expecting to do even more this year," says Donna Johnson, Pinnacle's president, adding that the KBA was "invaluable for us to develop as a company." In the last 10 years, Johnson says, "there's been a lot more interest in researching the brain, and neuro research has been growing as a field. We know a lot about the rest of the body, but compared to that, we still don't know much about how the brain works."
Jon Sloan and Natalie McAnulla thought they were on the right side of the law, even after the hearing in Topeka.
Business was still good, but both store owners were preparing to take K2 off the shelves in the event of a ban. They watched the progress of the legislation, and McAnulla's attorney, Knox, had advised her to return any remaining unsold product if it looked as if the governor was about to sign the law.
Sloan assumed that the police would leave him alone until that day came. But on Thursday, February 4 — before Gov. Mark Parkinson had signed the bill into law — federal agents burst through the door of his shop with guns drawn.
Sloan says one of the officers told him: "We're here for the K2." Another shut off the store's security cameras.
When they'd boxed up everything in the shop, they took Sloan to a room on the second floor and took each of the store's 12 employees aside for private questioning.
A similar scene was playing out at Sacred Journey.
Agents there flashed a warrant that said, "suspicion of the sale of illegal drugs." They boxed up all the still-legal product, along with a laptop, computer files, a store safe, sales reports from the last two years, baggies, scales and ethnobotanicals — plants used for medicinal or spiritual purposes, often associated with shamans or Amazonian tribes. McAnulla was in New York City at the time.
"One of my employees was at the police station and called me to let me know the manager was being interrogated and she was next," McAnulla says. "She told me no one was under arrest, and that they'd said all they wanted to do was ask questions. At the time, they didn't think to ask for legal counsel. No one thought we were doing anything criminal."
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration coordinated the day's raids, with assistance from Lawrence police and Johnson County Sheriff officers. FDA spokesman Tom Gasparoli declined to say what the agency was looking for, telling The Pitch that he could not "publicly comment on criminal investigations."
Later that day, Jefferson County prosecutors charged Sloan with eight felonies: seven for the unlawful cultivation or distribution of a controlled substance and one for possessing drug paraphernalia, which prosecutors described as a "plastic jug."
The controlled substances were trace amounts of chemicals that could be used to create psychoactive drugs; in this case, they came in the form of powders, flowers and bark among Sloan's stock of ethnobotanicals. In one count, prosecutors charged Sloan with possessing "Mescaline as contained in Trichocereus Cacti." Trichocereus cacti is the scientific name for what's commonly known as the San Pedro cactus, which is legal to own in the United States and is commonly stocked in the garden sections of big-box stores such as Lowe's or Home Depot. It is illegal to own if law-enforcement officers believe that you plan to chop it up and boil it down to extract and use the mescaline. Sloan's financial accounts also were frozen, including his 6-year-old son's savings account.
Sloan has no prior criminal convictions, but if he goes to prison, he probably won't see that son again until the boy has graduated from high school. Three of the charges carry sentences of 12 to 25 years in federal prison.
As of press time, McAnulla had not been arrested or charged with any felonies.
"They've sent all the shit they took from my store to the prosecutors, and the FDA says it could be weeks or months before anything is filed, so I'm pretty much living with a cloud over my head wondering when they're going to charge me," she says.
All of McAnulla's frozen assest are now the property of the IRS. "You know something funny?" she asks. "The first check to bounce after they froze everything was my estimated individual income tax to the state."
It's possible that Kansas Gov. Parkinson will have signed legislation banning K2 by the time this story goes to press.
That will allow legislators to return to that $400 million budget shortfall, trying to decide which programs to cut, whether to raise taxes, and which services Kansans can live without.
But the session might also see more cops testifying at hearings. The same week as the Kansas House and Senate passed the bans on synthetic cannabinoids, state Rep. Gail Finney, a Wichita Democrat, introduced a bill to legalize medicinal marijuana with a doctor's prescription. Finney has lupus, and she says that makes her sympathetic to patients who could be helped by prescription weed. "I just think it's the right thing to do," she told The Wichita Eagle.
If passed, the bill would authorize "compassionate care centers" for Kansas-grown pot. In response to Finney's proposal, Wichita TV station KWCH commissioned SurveyUSA to conduct a poll of Kansas residents. The results:
58 percent support legalizing marijuana for medicinal purposes.