D.C. health officials say that about five months ago, District police representatives came to the department with stories of new, bizarre behavior they'd seen among schoolchildren.

Kids would come to school acting unusually hyperactive or agitated, said Saul Levin, a senior deputy director of D.C.'s Addiction Prevention and Recovery Administration. Some, he said, would become so psychotic they'd require an emergency room trip.

"[The kids] will come off the substance, and the police will ask, 'What are you on?' " Levin said. "And it's K2 or spice."

In other words, the kids had smoked synthetic marijuana, evidence of a trend that officials in the region say they're working hard to contain.

Popular pair
K2 or spice: The Drug Enforcement Administration defines synthetic marijuana as "a mixture of herbs and spices that is typically sprayed with a synthetic compound chemically similar to THC, the psychoactive ingredients in marijuana." It's commonly known as K2 or spice, often marketed online as incense, and looks like potpourri, the DEA says.
Bath salts: These synthetic cathinones mimic the effects of amphetamines, cocaine, LSD and MDMA, among others. The DEA reports that bath salts typically look like a fine white or off-white powder. Many bath salts packets inform users that the drug is "not intended for human consumption."
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The Wards 5 and 6 Prevention Center, which has been at the forefront of a local push to get kids off K2 and spice, produced a short film earlier this month that talks to kids across the District about their experiences with synthetic marijuana.

"Designer" drugs -- chemical substances that mimic the effects of illegal street drugs -- garnered national attention after they were linked to a number of high-profile cases where individuals displayed psychotic, violent behavior. "Bath salts," whose effects are similar to amphetamines, cocaine and MDMA, are probably the most well-known variety.

But experts in the D.C. area have focused lately on the spread of synthetic marijuana, which they say is readily available in corner stores and gas stations across the District and enticing to kids who consider it a "safer" form of pot.

"[K2 and spice are] not safe; there's no human testing on these things. It's guys in a backroom taking a liquid and spraying it on to what could be basically yard clippings," said Bruce Anderson, the director of operations for the Maryland Poison Center at the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy.

Prosecuting designer drug manufacturers is difficult, D.C. police spokeswoman Gwen Crump said, mainly because they can change the product's chemical makeups to get around federal or local bans. The D.C. Council has considered proposals to ban spice and will likely fold a bath salts ban into an omnibus crime bill this fall. Maryland has already banned six bath salts-related substances but does not yet have a law on the books banning synthetic marijuana; Virginia has banned two substances related to bath salts and 10 substances related to synthetic pot.

Levin and his Health Department colleagues received the go-ahead earlier this month to launch a $600,000 prevention campaign aimed at deterring kids from trying synthetic drugs. But, they said, it's hard to track how many kids are actually using them because synthetics rarely show up in a simple urinalysis drug test.

D.C. public schools wouldn't comment on local children using spice or K2. Still, there's no denying that kids are familiar with the substances. Of the 172 youths and young adults surveyed by D.C.'s Ward 5 and 6 Prevention Center, which has been spearheading K2- and spice-awareness efforts around the city, 44.19 percent said they had friends or family who'd used the drug. The average age of first consumption? Thirteen-and-a-half, said Courtney Bennett, a community organizer at the Prevention Center.

The National Capital Poison Center, which tracks calls on drug use in the D.C. area, reported 46 calls for people exposed to bath salts so far this year -- up from 33 in the entirety of 2011, and just two in 2010. Calls for exposure to synthetic marijuana spiked from 70 to 128 between 2010 and 2011. The center has fielded 82 calls for K2 exposure so far this year.

Experts say one of the best defenses against K2 and drugs like it is education -- and early education, at that.

Bennett remembers asking a group of elementary school children if they'd heard of spice or K2. To her surprise, a handful of children raised their hands.

"I ran around the room and asked each one to give me their definition of it," Bennett said, "and one girl said that some of their classmates, 8- and 9-year-olds, are coming to school high."

awhelan@washingtonexaminer.com