The Peace of Sunshine store off the main drag in Catonsville has lately been making more than half its weekly sales in K2, a "legal pot" known also as "spice." But owner Lawrence J. Zwick says he has sold his last bag. As soon as he heard Monday morning that Baltimore County might make it a crime to sell the smokable leaf, he says, he packed up his inventory of two boxes and shipped it back to the distributor.
"Oh, I'm going to miss it," said Zwick, a 44-year-old retired Coast Guard warrant officer who for four years has owned the the store specializing in T-shirts, jewelry, incense and hookahs. "But I'd rather run a legitimate business than not running a business at all."
Minutes before, Kevin Kamenetz, a member of the County Council, had wrapped up a news conference across the street announcing his plans to introduce a bill next month making it illegal to sell, distribute, possess, buy or use K2, or any product with chemical compounds that are known to mimic the effects of marijuana. The bill proposes penalties of $500 fine, 60 days in jail or both.
The potpourri-like product appeared in the United States about a year ago, and has already been banned in several states in the Midwest and across Europe. Ocean City Police Chief Bernadette A. DiPino says local shops there have been cooperating with her written request in June to voluntarily take K2 off the shelves.
The product sells in plastic bags for about $20 a gram. That's nearly six times the price of marijuana, according to Agent Donny Moses of the Baltimore Police Department.
Kamenetz, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for county executive, said K2 "has become an issue for parents in this area. … If the state is not going to act, if the federal government won't act, local government" has to step in, he said, to "protect our kids and help our parents do a better job."
A former Baltimore prosecutor, Kamenetz says he got wind of the issue recently when The Catonsville Times did a story about K2 being sold in the area. He couldn't say how widespread the product is in stores in the county.
Susan Flaherty of Catonsville was troubled about the newspaper article that focused on Zwick's store, especially because she has two teenage sons.
"For them to be able to go into a local shop and buy this, it's ridiculous," said Flaherty. She said as far as she knows, her sons have not tried K2 — she said they hadn't heard of it until she spoke to them to warn them away from the stuff.
Zwick, who has two children of his own, says he's been selling K2 since January, and it's gotten up to $4,000 and $5,000 a week in sales. He said the customers are from "all age ranges," and he never sells to anyone under 18.
Kamenetz emphasizes reported side effects, including racing heartbeat, high blood pressure, nausea, vomiting and headaches. He called K2 a "fairly dangerous drug."
Jessica Wehrman, a spokesman for the American Association of Poison Centers, says the country's 60 poison centers have received 1,018 calls about K2 this year. As a comparison, in 2008, the most recent year for which complete statistics are available, Wehrman says over-the-counter and prescription painkillers accounted for more than 331,000 calls.
Dr. Bruce Anderson, operations director at the Maryland Poison Center, says the center has received few calls about K2. Anderson said he was not dismissing the potential danger of K2, but he said many of the reports about the ill effects of K2 are "consistent with anxiety" reactions that could have more to do with user's psychological state than the substance itself. It's hard to know, he says, because it's hard to know what the ingredients are.
"It's not even regulated at all," said Anderson. "Who knows what it is?"
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