The Kansas state representatives gathered for today's hearing have been working for just 10 days of a 90-day session. This year, the three-month legislative session hardly seems long enough to solve all the state's problems. The state legislators are facing a projected budget shortfall of $400 million. (As a result of last year's budget cuts, public schools already have lost 3,700 teachers. The state also has closed three minimum-security prisons, cut its reimbursements to doctors in the Medicaid program by 10 percent, and stopped paying for some seniors' dental care). But legislators will spend the next few hours arguing about fake weed.
It's Tuesday, January 19. The half-dozen members of the Kansas House Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee seem at ease despite the tense atmosphere in a packed room that's painted and carpeted like the lobby of a large dentist's office. The only item on the agenda is a bill that would criminalize two synthetic cannabinoid compounds: JWH-073 and JWH-018, which can bond to brain receptors and produce a high similar to that of marijuana. The chemicals are the active ingredients in a product called K2. It's packaged in tiny bags that look as if they're filled with potpourri, and it's sold in a couple of head shops on the eastern edge of the state.
It's the day after the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. That makes it tough for anyone to speak in front of the committee because the meeting was announced on Thursday of last week, and those testifying must submit written testimony 24 hours in advance.
Despite the short notice, eight representatives from various Kansas law-enforcement agencies have been able to prepare remarks and make the trip to Topeka. Among them is Johnson County forensic scientist Jeremy Morris, who one week earlier stood with the bill's sponsor, Rep. Robert Olson, a Republican from Olathe, at a press conference urging a ban. (Three days before the press conference, Olson told The Pitch: "The police were the ones that were pushing for it. I don't know much about it myself. I've been listening to the police, and they have a lot of concerns." Though he wasn't familiar with any scientific research on K2, he said, "I've got a daughter in high school, and this is a dangerous drug. The concern is selling it to kids.")
Morris' statement to the committee is essentially the same as it was at Olson's press conference: that K2 is a sort of super weed, able get a smoker higher than any real marijuana, while paralyzing unsuspecting teens in dreamless, dark comas. Based on the heavy law-enforcement presence, it looks as if today is about cops writing a law they want to enforce.
When police officers step up to add to Morris' testimony, they greet legislators on a familiar, first-name basis.
Their testimony is a weird mix of Internet innuendo and third-hand anecdotes. One officer says the first thing his department did upon hearing about K2 was search YouTube for clips and read the video comments. Another says he heard about a blog telling of a teen who went into a coma for 12 hours after smoking K2. A woman who works with high-school students says she fears for the teachers if a student goes into a violent frenzy from synthetic cannabinoids.
"I asked one student, and he said he smoked it and his insides were on fire," she says. "I know one was driving after he had smoked it with a friend, and they described the houses as looking small, like everything was in a video game. So their perception was clearly altered."
Speakers claim that the synthetic cannabinoids are chemically far more potent than marijuana, and they compare K2 with hallucinogens such as LSD.