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Councilor wants ban on marijuana imitation

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DULUTH - Eight states now have banned the sale of incense products infused with a form of synthetic marijuana.

But Duluth could become the first city in Minnesota to ban products containing a synthetic chemical that mimics the buzz-inducing effects of tetrahydrocannabinol -- aka THC -- in weed.

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City Councilor Todd Fedora says he'd like to block the sale of such products, marketed under a host of names including K2, Spice, Bayou Blaster, Spike Gold, Yucatan Fire, Armageddon and Judgment Day.

Fedora has introduced a resolution requesting that the Duluth Police Department provide the City Council with information on the sale and use of K2 and similar products in the community. He expressed hopes that this will be a first step toward an outright ban of the products.

The products are sold as incense in packaging that says they are not for human consumption.

Unlike the typical incense, however, they're not sold in stick or cone form; they come in loose-leaf packages like tobacco -- or marijuana.

Fedora said the products could be legally sold to underage smokers.

"This is a mood-altering substance, and if six to eight states have banned it, I think the city of Duluth should look at it, too," he said, adding that he's not comfortable waiting for the state of Minnesota to act. "When it comes to kids, I have no problem being proactive."

The substance has gradually gained attention among lawmakers at the both the state and municipal levels. On Tuesday night, the Allen, Texas, City Council unanimously approved a ban of K2 and synthetic marijuana products like it. And on Monday night Searcy County joined several other cities and counties in Arkansas in banning the substance. The League of Minnesota Cities told the News Tribune on Wednesday it wasn't aware of any Minnesota city to take that step.

Robert Johnson, an employee of the Last Place on Earth, a Duluth head shop, said staff at the store routinely card people buying the incense and won't sell it to anyone under 18 years of age.

"I think it's a misguided effort," said Johnson of Fedora's local campaign to ban the synthetic marijuana-laced incense.

"It's really a pretty mild product. It's not much of a problem," said Johnson.

But Kirk Hughes, director of education at the Minnesota Poison Control Center, said many people who try synthetic marijuana don't have the experience they'd sought.

"People think it's going to be some kind of super-marijuana, that's it's going to make them really mellow," he said. "But it often has the unintended effect of making people paranoid, elevating their heart rates and causing agitation. People call saying they're freaking out, and we've actually had reports of seizures."

The Last Place on Earth has chosen not to carry K2, citing health concerns about the product. But it sells other herbal incenses coated with JWH-018, the active neurochemical in K2. The synthetic marijuana products come in 3-gram packages and sell for about $25 a pop.

The drug first was synthesized by John W. Huffman, an organic chemist at Clemson University who bestowed his own initials on it.

Hughes said the drug was developed in hopes that it could serve as an appetite stimulant for people who were having trouble eating, such as patients undergoing chemotherapy. However, those efforts were abandoned early in the process, and the substance was never tested by the Food and Drug Administration or approved for human use. Little is known about its long-term health effects or toxicity. New Zealand, Austria, Germany and France have all banned the drug.

Since the start of this calendar year, the Minnesota Poison Control Center has received 16 reports of people having adverse reactions to synthetic marijuana.

The drug was virtually unheard of in the state even a year ago.

Duluth Police Lt. Steve Stracek said the drug just began to surface locally this year.

"In the last few months, we've had issues with it in drug court," he said, noting that synthetic marijuana doesn't typically show up in standard drug tests and isn't illegal in Minnesota, even though its use results in a loss of sobriety -- a condition of release for many convicts.

Stracek said he appreciates Fedora's efforts to crack down on K2 and the like.

"I would support restrictions on the sale or possession of this drug," he said. "I think it's an unsafe substance."

Fedora recognizes that a Duluth city ordinance is unlikely to keep synthetic marijuana completely out of the community, but he said: "From my standpoint, if we can stop this stuff from being sold to one kid in Duluth, it will have been worth it."

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