NORRISTOWN – On the street, it goes by the nicknames “K2,” “K3,” “Kush,” “Spice,” “Dead Man,” “Power Diesel” and some even call it “herbal incense,” according to authorities.
But while some might regard so-called synthetic marijuana as a safe alternative to other controlled substances, law enforcement authorities say it is dangerous and illegal.
“Synthetic simply means man-made, they’re not organic. While these drugs have been labeled by some as synthetic, they are just as dangerous and toxic and illegal as other controlled substances,” Montgomery County District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman warned this week.
Because drugs like K2 are labeled on the street as “synthetic, people think they “are fake and not real” and not dangerous, Ferman maintained.
“Let me tell you nothing can be further from the truth,” Ferman said. “These chemical compounds are just as dangerous, sometimes more dangerous, than some of the drugs we are accustomed to hearing about and seeing on our streets.”
In the wake of the arrests this week of a Pottstown man, who allegedly was driving high on K2 at the time of a May 21 double-fatal crash, and of a store owner and clerk, who allegedly sold the K2 to those involved in the crash, Ferman spoke about the dangers of the so-called synthetic drugs and about the relatively new laws that criminalize the behavior.
“K2 might look like something from a candy store, but it is illegal,” said Ferman, pointing to the colorful 30 vials of K2 that allegedly were seized from the Achi Store in Pottstown during the recent investigation.
K2 is a generic name for any number of substances known as synthetic marijuana. Authorities explained users take something considered harmless like an herb and spray a chemical compound on it to create K2. When smoked, authorities alleged, the substances replicate the high acquired from marijuana, even though they do not contain THC, marijuana’s active chemical.
“Reports from emergency rooms and poison centers have indicated that K2 can also produce effects not seen with marijuana use. The most serious of these side effects are panic, rapid heart rate and anxiety that results in suicidal episodes,” Ferman said. “We see paranoia, we see hallucinations and we see anxiety. We see all sorts of adverse reactions that cause people significant damage.”
Highlighting the dangerous nature of the drug, Ferman recalled a June 15, 2011, incident during which a 16-year-old Abington area boy leaped off of the third story of a four-story parking garage at the Willow Grove Park mall.
“We found through that investigation that he was under the influence, at the time, of K2,” Ferman said.
At the time of the incident, the sale of K2 was not illegal.
But under a relatively new law, commonly known as “bath salts legislation,” that was enacted Aug. 22, 2011, K2 is now considered a Schedule I synthetic cannabinoid, which is believed to mimic the effects of cannabis. A Schedule I drug is one that currently has no legitimate medical purpose under Pennsylvania law and has a high potential for abuse.
“What it did was criminalize what had come to be known as synthetic drugs, synthetic marijuana and bath salts,” Ferman explained about the legislation she supported. “The reason that the bill passed through the legislature is that over the preceding year we were inundated in law enforcement with incidents of violence and other disturbing acts by people who were under the influence of substances just like this.”
“So it was a response to what we were seeing on the street, a response to the substances coming into our community, being sold in convenience stores, in drug stores and gas stations, places like that,” Ferman recalled.
While many states are individually addressing the issue, the federal government also has responded by making such substances illegal.
Berks County District Attorney John T. Adams announced last year that law enforcement officers throughout the state of Pennsylvania would be enforcing the new law banning production, use and possession of dangerous bath salts and synthetic marijuana. Detectives and state police have been actively identifying and purchasing these substances from Berks retailers throughout the county since that time.
While prior to 2010 there was little known use or sale of K2 in Montgomery County, Ferman indicated over the last two years “there really has been an explosion” of young people involved in some “violent and disturbing incidents while they’re under the influence of these synthetic drugs.”
“It is primarily teenagers and young adults who are using these substances. We’re not seeing a great many stories about middle-aged, older folks, who are going out there and buying K2 or bath salts. We’re seeing a lot of kids who are using it because they believe, falsely, that it’s not dangerous and they believe it’s not illegal.”
“I think the message needs to go out there to young people that these substances can be just as toxic, just as dangerous and get you in as much trouble as the other substances that you would typically think of as being illegal,” Ferman said.
Possessing K2 for personal use is a misdemeanor while possessing K2 with the intent to distribute it is a felony, under the law.
Possessing 2-10 grams of K2 with intent to distribute carries a mandatory two-year prison sentence for a first time conviction. Possessing 10-100 grams of K2 with intent to distribute can carry a mandatory three-year prison term, while possessing more than 100 grams can carry a mandatory five-year prison sentence.
Sale of K2 to a minor carries a possible one year mandatory minimum prison sentence and the sale of it in a school zone can get an offender a two-year mandatory sentence, according to the law.
“Having a gun with these drugs carries with it a five-year mandatory minimum,” Ferman warned.
Ferman characterized those who sell the substances as being “no better than the street corner or school yard dealers.” She warned all store owners that authorities will prosecute them if investigations determine they are selling the substances.
“The substance, I’ve been told, originated in the Middle East and it’s something that started overseas, became popular in Europe and then came to this country a few years ago,” Ferman explained.
Court documents alleged that K2 was sold at the Achi Store in Pottstown for about $6 a container.
“You’re talking about not many dollars,” said Ferman, adding part of the appeal to users is that it is considered cheap. “Part of the appeal is that it’s been labeled as synthetic, so it makes kids think that it’s not illegal and that it’s not dangerous.”
Another part of the appeal is that those who want it believe they don’t have to turn to a so-called drug dealer on the street to get it but can walk into some convenience store and purchase it, authorities said.
When the law went into effect last year, Ferman said authorities set out to educate the public.
“We talked about the danger of these substances. We talked about the fact we were going to enforce the law and that we wanted store owners, shop owners, to know that they had an opportunity to get rid of these substances but we were going to enforce the law. Unfortunately, very tragically, we’re here enforcing the law in a case where there were some horrific consequences,” said Ferman, referring to the Pottstown double-fatal crash.
Roger Tracy Malloy, 27, of Pottstown, faces charges of homicide by vehicle while driving under the influence of a controlled substance in connection with the 11:30 p.m. May 21 crash on State Street that claimed the lives of James N. Crawford, 28, of Pottstown, and Rachael Witt, 15, a ninth-grade student at Pottstown High School, passengers in the gold Lincoln Continental allegedly operated by Malloy.
The brand of K2 that Malloy allegedly smoked before the crash was called “Dead Man.”
Authorities also filed drug delivery-related charges against Rafie L. Ali, 34, of Pottstown, the alleged operator of the Achi Store, and Mohamed Himed, 25, of New York, a store clerk.
The arrests mark the first time that a store owner has been charged in Montgomery County with selling K2, under the new state law.