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Florida wants to ban ‘legal weed’

Florida officials want to ban so-called “legal weed,” packs of herbs treated with chemicals that mimic the high of marijuana and have sent a rising number of smokers to emergency rooms.

The herbs are sold as incense in head shops and hookah bars under brand names such as K2 and Spice. They’ve become popular in the past year among teens and young adults who want legal substitutes for pot.

Doctors said some legal weed smokers have been stricken by short-lived yet potentially serious side effects, such as racing heartbeat, high blood pressure, agitation, panic attacks, severe vomiting and occasionally fevers as high as 106.

“We’ve seen a couple really bad things,” said Richard Weisman, director of the Florida Poison Information Center at the University of Miami. “If you had asked about this at this time last year, we wouldn’t have known what you were talking about.”

The Miami poison center logged about 50 cases of side effects from legal weed, none before May. Florida’s other centers in Tampa and Jacksonville reported a few cases each. Nationally, 1,259 cases have been reported so far this year compared to 14 last year, said the American Association of Poison Control Centers.

Although no one’s tracking the severity of illnesses caused by legal weed in Florida, a check of news reports shows a 17-year-old girl was found unresponsive on the ground and hospitalized in June near Tallahassee after smoking K2. Officials in Iowa contend that K2 may have contributed to a teen’s suicide.

Florida’s drug control director, Bruce Grant, said he and the state Drug Policy Advisory Council will ask the Legislature next year to add synthetic marijuana products to the state’s list of illegal drugs — as at least 11 other states have done.

“They are psychoactive and intoxicating, and they are a risk if you use them and drive,” Grant said. “Law enforcement knows this is an issue, but their hands are tied.”

Those who sell and smoke legal weed say authorities are overreacting to rare problems with products they call generally harmless.

“We’ve heard nothing bad about it whatsoever,” said Jay Work, who sells Spice at Grateful J’s Deadhead Shops in Margate and Boca Raton. “It’s an incense. It’s labeled as not for human consumption. What people do with it after they leave, I don’t know. It’s like inhaling [cleaning spray] for your computer. People abuse a lot of things. You can’t ban everything.”

Carlos, a Tamarac student who asked that his full name not be used, said he smoked legal weed items called Mr. Nice Guy and Blaze after he was arrested for pot possession.

“It’s just as good as regular marijuana, and it’s cheaper, too, and it’s legal,” said Carlos, who was sent by a drug court to the Starting Place treatment center in Plantation. “I like it a lot. I can control it, and I can moderate it. I would like it to stay legal.”

The weed products abound on the Internet, along with at least one online petition urging government officials not to ban it.

Legal herbs for smoking have been around for decades, but a new generation came out a few years ago using synthetic cannabinoids called JWH 018, CP 4797 and HU-210, developed in labs to imitate THC, the active ingredient in pot.

Makers spray the chemicals on herbs and sell them under brand names such as Zohai, Jamaican Gold Bud, Orange Krush, Black Magic, Serenity Now, California Dreams, Armageddon, King Krypto, Spike 99 and Bombay Blue. Officials worry because there’s no control over what’s really in the products.

K2 and Spice are the most common. They caught on in Europe, then spread to the United States. They’re not cheap. K2 sells for $30 to $35 for a three-gram packet, or $170 an ounce.

A few South Florida head shops stopped selling K2 after incidents earlier in the year led to bans in Kansas, Kentucky, North Dakota and eight other states. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration calls K2 a “drug of concern” but has not banned it.

Because few blood tests can detect legal weed, it is catching on with people trying to kick addictions to other drugs, said Kevin Bandy, adolescent outpatient coordinator at the Hanley Center treatment program in West Palm Beach. The Starting Place has the same problem, Chief Executive Joel Kaufman said.

“I have seen this drug be a complicating factor for people trying to get clean, trying to get sober,” Bandy said. “It will be hard to control. If they ban one of these, they’ll just change the name and keep going.”


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