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What Is K2? The Synthetic Cannabinoid That Officials Believe Is Making Prison Employees Sick

Kelley McCall
This Feb. 15, 2010, photo shows a package of K2 which contains herbs and spices sprayed with a synthetic compound chemically similar to THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana.

Pennsylvania's statewide prison system remains locked down after dozens of employees at different locations became sick over the past month. Department of Corrections officials believes the staff came into contact with a synthetic cannabinoid.

Also known as K2 or spice, these potent substances are created in a lab. Michael Lynch, medical director of the Pittsburgh Poison Center, said they mimic the active ingredients in marijuana, and interact with the same receptors in the brain.

"They do it much more potently than any marijuana plant product could," Lynch said.

Lynch said people who use K2 report that feeling is similar not to using marijuana, but rather to ingesting an amphetamine such as cocaine.

Department of Corrections officials say they think the substance is being sprayed on paper and then brought into prisons, possibly through the mail. Officials say people can then smoke or eat the paper to get high.

On Wednesday, Pennsylvania officials announced the DOCwill no longer pass original copies of mail onto prisoners. Instead, they'll get photocopies and the originals will be returned to the sender.

Special Agent Patrick Trainor with the Drug Enforcement Agency in Philadelphia said drugs coming into prisons is nothing new. But synthetic cannabinoids are more easily transported than other drugs, such as heroin or marijuana.

"A synthetic drug like K2 is not going to have a detectable odor or smell like those other drugs do," Trainor said.

Such substances also don't show up on traditional drug tests that screen for marijuana.

Synthetic drugs lie in a murky legal territory. While K2 is illegal, Trainor said it's synthetic nature means it can be altered by its creators.

"What we see is that a lot of the chemical manufacturers will alter the chemical composition of these drugs," Trainor said. "Which then makes them legal until we can schedule them again."