York County drug-abuse prevention advocates are urging state lawmakers to ban chemicals used to make synthetic marijuana, a legal mix of herbs cropping up in local shops and thought to be more dangerous than the real thing.
Packets are sold in drug paraphernalia shops, online and in convenience stores under names such as K2, Spice, Red Dawn X and Genie. Many are labeled as incense and bear stickers warning "not for human consumption."
But that's just a cover, say opponents, who believe distributors are capitalizing on a burgeoning market of teens and young adults smoking and ingesting "fake pot" for a legal high.
"It's a product that puts life at risk and health at risk," said Jane Alleva, director of York County's All On Board Coalition.
K2 is easy to get in York County and the Charlotte region at various convenience stores for $8 to $24 a gram.
S.C. Sen. Wes Hayes, a Rock Hill Republican, has already drafted a bill to ban synthetic marijuana. S.C. House Rep. Tommy Pope, a York Republican, expects to follow suit.
"I can't fathom a lot of opposition," Pope said.
The Fort Mill school board, which recently learned about fake pot from Alleva, passed a resolution last week requesting that the General Assembly ban synthetic marijuana.
"We were not aware that there's a substance that sits on counter at gas stations," Fort Mill school board Chairman Patrick White said. "That was kind of the eye-opening, holy crap moment."
The effort comes on the heels of an emergency action last month by the federal Drug Enforcement Administration to list the five chemicals - three of which were created at Clemson University - in the government's most restrictive drug category along with heroin and LSD. The ban is to last a year while the government studies whether the chemicals should be permanently illegal.
DEA spokeswoman Dawn Dearden said law enforcement will use chemical tests to determine which products violate the ban and will focus on distributors, not individual users.
The temporary move is expected to take effect by the end of the month, which means synthetic marijuana will remain legal until then.
Passing state laws against it would bolster the DEA action, said Alleva, who plans to meet with York County legislators on Tuesday to make a synthetic marijuana presentation.
Synthetic marijuana often looks and smells like a mix of potpourri and oregano. But smokers' adverse reactions -including hallucinations, seizures, vomiting and suicide attempts - have police and lawmakers around the country targeting the chemically-coated plant leaves.
South Carolina would join at least 15 states that have moved to regulate or ban one or more of the chemicals, as have some European and Scandinavian countries.
Area teens know all about "spice", Alleva said.
After learning about synthetic marijuana, Alleva said she met with several teens from across the county to see what they knew.
"Of course, they schooled us," she said. "One thing the kids do tell me is the high isn't all that great." After smoking it several students said it felt like having a hangover or worse, Alleva said.
Still, teens told her they would probably do it again.
"There's that sense that since it's legal, it's more appetizing; that it's getting something over on the law," Alleva said.
The man who created three of the chemicals as part of his government-sponsored research nearly 20 years ago said, "They are dangerous and anyone who uses them is stupid."
John W. Huffman, a retired organic chemistry researcher from Clemson University, told the Associated Press, "They seem to be pretty toxic."
Huffman said his research developed three compounds that mimic THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, but have very different chemical formulas. The idea was to study how they interact with the brain. Huffman tested them only in animals, he said.
It's unclear exactly how his research moved from the lab to the commercial market, but Huffman said one chemical version was sold several years ago in South Korea as a growth supplement for bonsai plants. Also, several years ago he discussed his research in a chapter he contributed to a chemistry book.
"I suspect that the people who picked up on it were in China," he said. "Most of these drugs ... originally started in Russia and Western Europe about 2005."
As of Sept. 27, the American Association of Poison Control Centers had reported receiving more than 1,500 calls from 48 states and the District of Columbia about products spiked with the chemicals, the Drug Enforcement Administration said.
The DEA first heard of the new designer drugs in November 2008 when the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency analyzed "Spice." Sometimes the chemicals are produced abroad and shipped into the United States; earlier this year Customs seized a 110-pound load of two of the chemicals.
Manufacturers and distributors of K2 and Red X Dawn couldn't be reached for comment.
The DEA ban has sparked reaction nationwide.
Advocates for legalizing marijuana argue that banning the real thing has pushed people to find lawful ways to get high, like K2, which can be more toxic.
On his blog, Jacob Sullum, editor of the Libertarian magazine Reason, said the federal ban "highlights the hollowness of the pretense that prohibition protects people from drug-related harm. If that were really the DEA's aim, it would be rescheduling marijuana instead of driving people to riskier alternatives. "
As the synthetic marijuana industry regroups, more alternatives could arise.
Huffman said countless other compounds mimic THC, some hundreds of times more powerful than real marijuana.
Mark Tucci, a Hilton Head resident and owner of the franchise Custom Blends Tobacco, said he's already heard from suppliers who promised new products with different chemicals that comply with the new regulations.
"We've been getting calls from manufacturers. They knew about this thing coming down, and they said they are working on other blends," said Tucci, whose company has four franchises and two company-owned stores, all in Pennsylvania, that sell K2.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Shawn Cetrone 803-329-4072