I wrote this for the Chicago Reader, originally. Was published there way back in 2002. This is my first ever publication! A good idea of how I’d handle a CBD article.
The K2 Rush
Chicago head shops brace for the impending synthetic marijuana ban, while an unlikely group of smokers place their orders to stock up.
by Jason Edward Harrington
“Gimme’ 10 Blondes,” says the hoary man in a knit cap, as the employee behind the counter unlocks the glass cabinet in Secrets, a smoke shop in Lakeview, “Time’s running out!” the man says to the employee, his manner as vibrant as the varicolored paraphernalia which deck the walls like psychedelic Christmas ornaments. “Better enjoy it while we got it, right?”
The kids call it spice. Older users give it the more dignified and literal moniker, “synthetic.” It’s sold in 3 gram packets at 30 bucks a pop. The label on the packet says “For fragrance purposes only. Not for consumption.” The label is being sarcastic: it’s an herbal blend sprayed with a chemical compound designed to, when smoked, mimic the effects of THC. In fact, it’s much more powerful than THC. It may be “fake weed” but it will really get you high.
K2 has been on smoke shop shelves in Chicago since 2006. On January 1st it will become illegal in Illinois, officially categorized as a controlled substance. It’s the first such ban on a substance since the state outlawed pure-form powdered Dextromethorphan ( DXM, the ingredient in cough syrup that can make having a cold kind of fun) in 2007, and, most recently, in 2008, salvia divinorum, a plant with hallucinogenic properties. It’s not a new story: too many kids getting high on something, so state and local governments outlaw it. But the little-known secret about K2 is that it isn’t just kids using; in fact, most of its users are adults– many of them even government employees, themselves.
“Before I got hired on, I smoked weed from time to time,” said one CTA employee, wishing to remain anonymous. “But with the random drops they give us, smoking weed…too risky. Once I tried K2, I realized it was the next best thing. You piss clean with it, too. I’m just going to stock up before the ban.”
In these weeks preceding the ban, “stocking up” seems to be the key phrase for Chicagoans who, for one reason or another, have turned to K2 as their marijuana substitute.
“I warned all my customers to start placing their orders in November. There’s a lot of interest in buying in bulk,” said one employee at Pipes and Stuff– a smoke shop with locations in Wicker Park and Lakeview– where the K2 is displayed front and center, right next to the register, as it is in most head shops where K2 is sold. “There’s definitely going to be a big rush leading up to the ban.”
Another employee at a popular smoke shop in Uptown acknowledged that his customers run the full gamut of adult professionals.
“We get nurses, army guys, government employees…anyone who gets drug-tested, really.”
The main draw for these unlikely users is the money-shot substance drizzled on the K2 herbal mix, the chemical JWH-018, named after John W. Huffman, the organic chemistry researcher who developed JWH-018– along with hundreds of other synthetic cannabinoid compounds– during the 1990s to aid in medical research. It didn’t take long for people to pick up on the recreational drug-use potential of Dr. Huffman’s work, and it was JWH-018 that was honed in on as the compound of choice for best replicating the THC high. For users, the most attractive quality of JWH-018 and other similar compounds is the fact that it will not show up on any standard drug test. Among the first groups of people to realize the urinalysis-circumventing potential for such a drug were members of our very own armed forces. The military is now screening for the compounds commonly found in K2. Government and private institutions, thus far, are not, meaning that for now, K2 and its many variations are considered by many to be the closest substitutes for individuals who wish to enjoy a marijuana-like high, sans the risk of termination.
Short term, the most commonly-reported effects of K2 Summit (the most powerful blend in the K2 lineup, which includes Blonde, Standard, and Citron) include increased heart rate, paranoia, mild hallucination, and an enhanced appreciation of music (seriously). Sounds pretty familiar. The only thing missing are reports of increased appetite. The high is much shorter-lasting than your typical marijuana buzz, but much more intense: many users report heavy trips well outside and beyond the realm of any marijuana high.
The long term effects, on the other hand, are the biggest problem with K2: namely, the fact that nobody has any real idea what they may be.
“People are taking a huge risk when they smoke this stuff,” Dr. Huffman said, when asked about people’s abuse of the chemical compounds created in his lab. “We really don’t know what the health effects might be.”
Scrolling through the K2-related posts on Bluelight.com, a forum of often-times freakishly knowledgeable recreational drug users, one comes across an alarming 13 page mega-thread, devoted entirely to one undesirable lingering K2 side effect in particular: severe, chronic headaches.
“I smoked it on only about 5 occasions total, the last two it totally took me to a bad place. The feeling is indescribable, but I remember I could only sit there with my hands on my face, my brain in intense pain, feeling as though it was just melting into itself. About a week later I started getting horrible headaches. They got worse and worse and worse, “ one user writes. A deluge of sympathetic user comments follows.
It is for this reason that a few smoke shops will go unaffected by the ban, having ceased selling K2 long ago, or having never sold it to begin with.
“We miss out on a lot of money by not selling it, definitely. We’ve gotten 10-15 calls per day asking for it, especially in the past few weeks. ” said Seth Fox, an employee at Adam’s Apple in West Rogers Park, a smoke shop that refuses to sell K2 or any similar products.
“We’re just not willing to sell a drug that has never been scientifically tested on humans.”
Whether K2 is a relatively harmless marijuana substitute, or a yet-to-be-uncovered highly toxic death herb, worthy of the government’s reefer-madness-like condemnation, one thing is certain: it sells in Chicago, especially right now. Come January 1st, Chicago smoke shops will be taking a big hit.
“The owners of other smoke shops tell us they’re profiting ten to thirty thousand dollars per month off K2 alone,” said Fox. “After the ban, they’re all going to be scrambling for the next JHW-018 substitute. But even after JHW-018 goes illegal, it’ll just go underground, anyway.”
As the dusty Prohibition-era tunnels crisscrossed beneath it attest, Chicago has always been somewhat of an underground city– a city with no shortage of opportunistic spirit– and so, of course, the synthetic marijuana trade will go on, black market. Every K2-selling head shop is already inundated with bulk orders from users eager to exploit K2’s upcoming scarcity, and even non-selling shops are assailed by offers from enterprising individuals shopping homemade K2: JWH-018 can be easily ordered online.
“We get people coming in from the neighborhood sometimes, trying to sell us pounds of synthetic marijuana they made in their basements ,” said Fox. “That’s another problem with people getting high off this stuff: it’s unregulated, so people have no idea what’s giving them that rush.”
The rush is on indeed, and, every day, as the ban deadline approaches, a search of “K2” on Craigslist’s for sale “general” forum brings up more and more ads such as this one:
“I noticed the news of the banning of synthetic marijuana in your state as of Jan 1. 2011.
I have about 60 packs of 3gs a piece I am willing to sell for a low price. I have too much!
Please contact me email or txt phone. Go Cubs!”
Alienation of her Sox fan market aside, one must admire the entrepreneurial instinct.