O'FALLON — It's known as fake pot or synthetic marijuana. Soon, it will be just as illegal in Missouri as the real thing.
Gov. Jay Nixon appeared Tuesday at the St. Charles County Sheriff's Department to sign a bill criminalizing the product known as K2. The law, effective Aug. 28, makes K2 a controlled substance, with possession punishable by jail or fine.
Specifically, the law bans synthetic compounds that are sprayed on dried herbs and flowers and often sold as incense. The product produces a marijuana-like high when smoked or inhaled. It is sold in smoke shops, convenience stores and elsewhere.
Nixon said K2 has been associated with health risks ranging from elevated blood pressure to hallucinations to possibly seizures.
"Most alarming is that health care providers and poison control centers are seeing increased use of K2 by children," Nixon said. "It is unsafe and has serious potential for abuse, especially by children."
Missouri becomes the fifth state to ban K2, following Kansas, Alabama, Kentucky and Arkansas. Kansas enacted the first ban in March.
Some Missouri towns and counties didn't wait for the state. St. Charles and Pettis counties and several municipalities have banned K2 in recent months.
Lawmakers and police officials said they first learned of K2 late last year, alarmingly, from their kids.
Ron Replogle, superintendent of the Missouri State Highway Patrol, recalled asking his son, who is in college, if he knew anything about K2.
"Oh, everybody's doing it, dad," Replogle said he was told.
At the Dragon Lair store in Jefferson County, near St. Louis, a worker who would only give her first name, Sharon, said K2 is a big seller to people of varying ages.
"This is going to hurt our business," she said. But she was confident another product like K2 will come along and sell just as well. "Supply and demand."
Nixon acknowledged that if another synthetic marijuana hits the market, lawmakers will have to act separately on it. But he said the state's swift response to K2 "sends a pretty clear message. We stand ready to protect, especially the kids, from these types of substances that can cause lasting problems."
Those caught with K2 face the same penalty as those caught with marijuana. Possession of 35 grams or less is a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine. Possession of larger amounts is a felony punishable by up to seven years in prison.
Sponsoring Rep. Ward Franz, R-West Plains, has said the products had become so prevalent that students in his town were lined up to buy it at the convenience store down the street from the high school. Three-ounce silver packages sold for about $35.
Toxicologists say the drugs affect the brain like marijuana, which is a cannabinoid.
The bill also aligns Missouri with the federal list of controlled substances. Most of those drugs are types of steroids.