A bill that would outlaw K2 and other varieties of so-called synthetic marijuana in Pennsylvania was overwhelmingly approved in the state House on Tuesday by a vote of 198-1.
Bill 176 would prohibit the manufacture, distribution, and possession of five chemicals. The substances, synthetic cannabinoids, are mixed with common herbs. The blend is sold as "incense" and smoked for a high that is similar to marijuana.
The bill needs approval in the state Senate before it can become law.
That is unlikely this year, said Erik Arneson, a spokesman for Senate Republicans, "given the limited time left in the current session – and the major issues yet to be resolved, such as the severance tax, pension reform, and the creation of an independent fiscal office."
Eleven states have already enacted bans. Ten others, including New Jersey, are considering similar measures.
The incense is sold at variety stores, gas stations, head shops, and online. Common brand names include K2, Spice, and Zohai.
More than 1,500 people across the country were treated in emergency rooms this year after smoking such products, according to a report issued Tuesday by the American Association of Poison Control Centers.
ERs across the country reported 15 adverse reactions last year. Symptoms included seizures, hallucinations, rapid heartbeat, and extreme anxiety and paranoia.
"We need to get these dangerous materials off the shelves and off the Internet more sooner than later," said State Rep. Bryan Lentz (D., Delaware), who voted for the bill. Lentz, who is running for Joe Sestak's congressional seat, said he had never heard of the incense before State Rep. Jennifer Mann (D., Lehigh) introduced the bill July 30.
"So I had a staffer go online and buy some," said Lentz, a former Philadelphia prosecutor. "It was delivered the next day. No questions asked. He could have been a 12-year-old kid."
Besides being legal in most states, the active ingredient in the incense is at least four times as powerful as THC, the psychoactive substance in marijuana.
"The primary reason people use this stuff is that it will not show up in a standard drug test," said Chris Goldstein, spokesman for the Philadelphia Chapter for the National Organization to Reform Marijuana Laws (NORML). "A urinalysis looks for THC and its metabolites. The body does not metabolize this stuff in the same way."
Though packets of the incense are typically marked "not for human consumption," they are sold with a "wink and a nod," said Barbara Carreno, a spokeswoman for the federal Drug Enforcement Administration.
"When was the last time you paid 50 bucks for a few grams of incense and they assured you it will be mailed discreetly?" Carreno said. "The manufacturers and distributors, they're only in it for the money, and they don't care."
Goldstein warns that there is no assurance of what is in each packet of incense. Because it is not regulated by the FDA or DEA, it can be sold as a "proprietary blend" and not list ingredients.
"I would not recommend anyone touching this stuff," Goldstein said. "Samples have come back testing positive for formaldehyde, vitamin E, and acetone. . . .
"This stuff is like setting a plastic spoon on fire and inhaling."