Derek Williams was working as a trash-truck driver when his cousin told him about K2, a product made from plant materials and chemicals that provided a legal, marijuana-like high. Williams saw his ticket out of the residential rubbish business: Make a better blend.
He studied compounds that mimic the effects of pot, and almost a year after creating his own brand, Syn Incense, in his home in Kansas City, Missouri, Williams, 29, said he has sold more than $1.5 million worth in at least 10 states. Marketing the product as incense helps him avoid federal regulations, even though he said he knows most customers smoke it.
His ability to stay a step ahead of federal and state authorities underscores the hurdles regulators face as they move to ban chemicals used in such products, which they say may pose serious and unknown dangers. Williams said when his ingredients are restricted, he switches to similar ones.
“It became a money-making machine,” said Williams, adding that he hopes the business will lead to early retirement.
Demand for designer drugs, including what regulators call “fake pot,” is growing so fast that a United Nations narcotics-control board said on March 2 that the products are spreading “out of control” and urged governments to prevent the manufacture and trafficking of the substances.
Use of fake pot has spurred more than 3,500 calls to poison control centers throughout the U.S. since the start of 2010, according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers in Alexandria, Virginia. Users have suffered from racing heartbeats, high blood pressure and nausea.
The Drug Enforcement Administration on March 1 temporarily banned five synthetic chemicals called cannabinoids, and U.S. lawmakers are considering a permanent prohibition. Twenty states have banned certain synthetic cannabinoids, according to Alison Lawrence, a policy specialist with the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver.
Still, law enforcement is struggling to keep up. There are no field tests police can use to determine if products contain banned ingredients, and police laboratories must analyze each one separately. Dozens of competing brands have been sold in stores and online with names like Spice, Mr. Smiley, Voodoo Magic and K2 Solid Sex.
Williams, the company manager, sells his products wholesale to smoke shops, gas stations and convenience stores at prices ranging from $3.25 to $25. He said the stores typically charge at least double that in blends with names like Chill, Ripped and Lemon Lime. Some websites sell them for even more.
Products containing cannabinoids can act in a way similar to THC, the main active chemical in marijuana. Cannabinoids can be far more potent or less potent than THC.
Users are risking their health by consuming chemicals that never have been studied in humans, said Aron Lichtman, a professor of pharmacology and toxicology at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond.
“You’re playing with a loaded gun,” said Lichtman.
Several teenagers have died after smoking synthetic cannabinoids, police say. Among them is David Rozga, 18, of Iowa, who committed suicide last year after consuming the substance, according to Brian Sher, a detective with the Indianola, Iowa, police department. Charlie Davel, 19, was killed last year after he fled police and went the wrong way on a highway in Mukwonago, Wisconsin; friends told authorities he smoked K2 several hours before the crash, said Waukesha County Sheriff’s Detective Steve Pederson.
While synthetic cannabinoids are increasingly catching the attention of authorities now, the substances have been around for decades and have been studied to treat pain, inflammation and other ailments.
Pfizer Inc. synthesized a cannabinoid that was never tested in humans as part of a program in the late-1970s to separate the psychotropic effects from pain-killing properties of cannabis, said Lauren Starr, a spokeswoman for the New York-based pharmaceutical company.
One prescription drug containing a synthetic cannabinoid that’s approved in the U.S. is Marinol, marketed by Abbott Laboratories of Abbott Park, Illinois, for uses including treating nausea and vomiting associated with chemotherapy.
Pricier Than Pot
Bob Welsh, program manager for breath-alcohol instrument training at the University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg, said there may be 30 cannabinoids commonly used in incense-type products, selling for about $40 for a 3-gram bag, more than the street price of pot. People are willing to pay a premium for a legal high that doesn’t show up in most drug tests, he said.
Welsh tested several varieties of incense on human volunteers last year, having them smoke it from a bong. The effect was similar to marijuana, through there were differences, he said.
“What we’ve been seeing is anxiety, apprehension, even some levels of borderline paranoia, fear, body temperature dropping,” he said.
Banning the substances can be difficult because as soon as one set of chemicals is restricted, producers shift to other varieties, said William Marbaker, director of the crime laboratory division of the Missouri State Highway Patrol.
“You’re basically playing a game of whack-a-mole trying to keep ahead,” said Marbaker.
Williams said he’d previously smoked marijuana and was skeptical about a synthetic alternative when his cousin, Jason Sparks, told him about K2.
He went to work researching, studying the chemical makeup of cannabinoids online and reverse engineering K2, he said.
“I just saw a business opportunity,” Williams said. “I knew with all the media hype this wasn’t going to go away anytime soon. It was creating more and more customers.”
He started selling his product in April. His girlfriend, Ashli Adkins, became the owner of the company, called KC Incense LLC, and Sparks signed on as sales manager. Williams quit his trash job and went to work full time on Syn. They came up with the slogan “Syn is in.”
He altered his formula twice -- the first time after Missouri passed a law banning certain chemicals and the second time after the DEA announced plans in November to restrict sales of five chemicals. Syn blends include plant materials -- one is a “sacred lotus herb from Thailand” -- soaked in a mix of five cannabinoids, Williams said.
Before marketing each of the different blends, he said he smoked various amounts to make sure they were safe, and had regular customers try new versions. He said some people get nausea, headaches and experience a mood change.
“I wanted to know that I wasn’t going to be hurting people,” Williams said. The product isn’t safe if it’s abused, he said. “If it’s an occasional use, I don’t see safety issues.”
Williams said it’s doubtful customers use Syn as incense.
“Everybody knows what it is and what they’re buying it for,” he said.
Syn has six full-time employees and the product is made in a spare room in his house. The chemicals and plant materials are mixed in an open metal container, he said. The company buys the ingredients from a middleman.
Williams said he is examining new chemicals he can use as states consider banning all cannabinoids. He said Syn is especially strong and he wants to keep it that way.
“We have one of the most potent blends on the market,” he said. “That’s what people want.”