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Smoke Shops and Customers Brace for Synthetic Pot Ban

“Gimme’ six Blondes,” says the hoary man in Army fatigues, as the employee behind the counter dutifully unlocks the glass cabinet in Secrets, a smoke shop in Lakeview. “Time’s running out!” he says in a voice like gravel, tattoos as vibrant as the varicolored paraphernalia that decks the store’s 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 nickname: “synthetic.” It’s sold in three-gram packets at 30 bucks a pop. The label on the package says, “For fragrance purposes only. Not for consumption.” The label’s not exactly to be trusted; inside is an herbal blend sprinkled 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.

Secrets Smoke Shop in Lakeview.

K2 has been on smoke shop shelves in Chicago since 2006. On Jan. 1, 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 figure out how to get 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.

Many people like to get high — it’s nearly an axiomatic truth — and marijuana is the preferred recreational drug of choice (outside of alcohol and prescription meds) for the average, upright and functional citizen who longs for distraction from his or her oppressive existence. But “functional citizens” these days occasionally have jobs, and jobs sometimes require random drug testing, government jobs especially. And so, faced with the option of employment vs. smoking marijuana, many have gone the K2 route.

“Before I got hired on, I smoked weed from time to time,” said one CTA employee who wished 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 gonna’ 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 K2 is displayed 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 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 synthetic cannabinoid 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 the 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 myriad variations are considered by many to be the closest substitutes for individuals who wish to enjoy a marijuana-like high, sans the risk of a pink slip.

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 intense late night White Castle cravings and ensuing hilarity (the drug reportedly does not induce 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 biggest single complaint is the taste: a mix between mud and cheap potpourri.

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, a community 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 five 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, setting off a deluge of sympathetic user comments.

It is for reasons such as this that at least one smoke shop will go unaffected by the ban, having never sold K2 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, on average, and it’s been going up in the past few weeks. Several people come in asking for it every day: government employees, military people, people on probation, people from all walks of life, ” 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. ”

In the world of Chicago smoke shops, Sheldon Miller, the owner of Adam’s Apple, is something like The Smoke Shop Godfather: He’s been in the business for decades, and he won’t have any of his people dealing in synthetic drugs. For all the buzz about K2, the “deadly new legal marijuana sweeping the nation,” one might think that this sort of thing was a new phenomenon. But actually, legal drug substitutes have been sold on smoke shop shelves for years. Some may remember Wild Lettuce Opium, an opium-like extract from the plant Lactuca Virosa which was quite a big head shop seller back in the ’70s. In the ’90s came Salvia, before it too was banned in the state of Illinois. Slowly gaining in popularity right now — and still off the media’s drug panic radar — is Kratom, another plant extract with opioid properties. The one thing they all have in common: Sheldon Miller has refused to sell any of them in his store over the years. Although he was unavailable to be interviewed, Fox and his other employees had nothing but fervent praise for Sheldon Miller.

“He’s steadily resisted the temptation to get into any of that stuff. He could own a chain of stores by now if he had, but he’s just not a greedy person. There’s a school nearby, children play near here. He doesn’t want to sell anything that could be unknowingly endangering people’s lives,” said Fox.

Whether K2 really has been endangering people’s lives — some kind of highly toxic death herb, worthy of the government’s reefer-madness-like condemnation — or whether it is a relatively harmless marijuana substitute, as its users believe, one thing is certain: It sells in Chicago, especially right now. And come Jan. 1, Chicago smoke shops will be taking a big hit.

“The owners of other smoke shops tell us they’re profiting $10-$30,000 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.”

Chicago has always been somewhat of an underground city, as the dusty Prohibition-era smuggling tunnels buried beneath it will eternally attest, a city with no shortage of opportunistic souls. And so, of course, the synthetic marijuana trade will go on the black market. The thing about the upcoming ban is that it only applies to JWH-018 and JWH-073, the specific compounds most often used in K2 and similar products. So it won’t be long before another THC-like compound is substituted, and another K2-like “herbal incense” is back on smoke shop shelves.

And so the government’s game of whack-a-mole will continue: Keep marijuana illegal, and up pops K2. Bat down K2, and up pops an alternative — an alternative which is usually more harmful than the original thing being banned. History has shown that if people want to get high, they will find a way, and that goes double for prohibition-resistant Chicago. 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 peddling homemade K2, since 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 Chicago 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 the Sox fan demographic aside, one must admire her entrepreneurial instinct.

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