State senator aims to propose synthetic weed bill as soon as January

Use of synthetic marijuana has skyrocketed nationwide in the past two years.

A pouch of K2 – A popular variety of synthetic marijuana – contains a mix of herbs sprayed with JWH-018, a chemical that mimics the active ingredient in marijuana.

Mark Vancleave

A pouch of K2 – A popular variety of synthetic marijuana – contains a mix of herbs sprayed with JWH-018, a chemical that mimics the active ingredient in marijuana.

Kyle Potter

Inside the cellophane pouch is a mixture of herbs one might find in a spice rack, but these herbs are anything but garden variety.
They have been sprayed with chemical compounds like JWH-018 to give consumers a legal high similar to marijuana.
Use of synthetic marijuana has skyrocketed nationwide in the past two years, leading politicians to question whether they should ban the products.
The issue hit Minnesota earlier this month when Sen. Katie Sieben, DFL-Cottage Grove, announced her plans to introduce a bill that would outlaw the substance.
“The use of this synthetic drug is increasing rapidly among teenagers because it is currently legal,” Sieben said in a statement on her website. “However, this product is clearly dangerous.”
She promised to make the bill a top priority when the state Legislature reconvenes in January, noting the reported side effects of using varieties of synthetic marijuana like heart palpitations, vomiting and panic attacks.
The substance came to her attention when a teenager from Hastings nearly died after smoking synthetic marijuana, according to the statement.
Sieben did not return multiple requests for an interview.
To date, nine states have banned the substance. Illinois became the latest state to take a stand against popular varieties of synthetic marijuana like “K2” and “Spice” when Gov. Pat Quinn signed a bill into law Monday.
As of July 23, there have been more than 750 calls to U.S. poison centers related to the substance this year, according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers.
JWH-018 mimics the effects of THC, the active ingredient in marijuana. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has spent more than a year examining the compound, but is unlikely to finish that research anytime soon.
“To us, that’s part of the danger: the fact that there are so many unknowns,” DEA spokesman Rusty Payne said. “Why would you take something that we have so little information about?”
Synthetic marijuana has been on the DEA’s radar for about two years, Payne said.
Research is a necessary step to federal regulation of chemicals like JWH-018, so it could be months or years before the DEA slaps a federal ban on the substance. But in Payne’s mind, that shouldn’t matter.
“Just because a drug is not illegal under federal law does not necessarily mean it is safe,” he said.
 Packages of K2 warn against human consumption. They are labeled as herbal incense, and that’s how The Hideaway Head Shop in Dinkytown sells them.
“We don’t advertise it as something you smoke and get high from,” said owner Wally Sakallah.
His store carries a handful of herbal mixes sprayed with JWH-018, and sales have been good, Sakallah said. The chemical doesn’t show up in drug tests, so people on probation or “in a high position” are frequent customers, he said.
Though a head shop seems the most likely spot to buy the product, Hideaway is not alone in Dinkytown. Royal Cigar and Tobacco and Magus Books and Herbs also carry varieties of the product, sold as incense.
If a bill banning the products passes in 2011, Sakallah made it clear he will comply. He will be pulling salvia divinorum off the shelves Sunday when a statewide ban of the hallucinogenic herb goes into effect.
But a synthetic marijuana ban may not be as clear-cut. If the state bans JWH-018, an alternative chemical will pop up immediately, Sakallah said.
Dakota County Attorney James C. Backstrom acknowledged the difficulty of crafting an effective ban.
“We’ll do the best job we can, and hopefully have it as broad as possible,” he said.
Backstrom will be working with Sen. Sieben to draft a bill that she can introduce to the state Senate come January.
It’s no wonder Sieben approached Backstrom for legislative help. He has become a key figure in the opposition to medical marijuana legislation in Minnesota.
To Backstrom, there is little difference between these synthetic products and the real thing. Both cause short and long-term health side effects, he said.
“These substances are dangerous, and we need to stop their sale.”