On Sunday, Marion Christopher Barry, son of the late Washington, D.C., political giant Marion Barry, died of a drug overdose. According to reports, the younger Barry was in a Southeast D.C. apartment drinking and smoking K2, a now banned synthetic marijuana that not only used to be legal but was also sold in just about every gas station or corner store in the nation's capital.
Barry reportedly smoked the drug and began acting strange before he collapsed on the floor. Barry was rushed to a local hospital, where he was pronounced dead. He was 36.
Below is a look at the drug that took Barry's life.
What is K2?
K2 is a popular brand of synthetic marijuana—a mix of herbs sprayed with chemicals called cannabinoids that attempt to mimic the effects of the active ingredient, THC, in marijuana. K2 tends to have a more potent effect than even the strongest strain of cannabis. In fact, classifying the drug as "marijuana" is part of the allure, when, in fact, the effects of K2 and others like it is more akin to PCP than cannabis. K2 comes in silver packets and has been sold as herbal incense or potpourri. Synthetic marijuana, which is also commonly called "Spice," "AK-47" and "Scooby Snax," can be smoked or inhaled and also comes in liquid form.
How is synthetic marijuana sold?
For years K2 was carried at neighborhood corner stores, gas stations and bodegas. Because it was sold as "incense," it wasn't regulated as a drug, meaning that it was accessible to anyone who could fork over the cash to afford it. In March 2011, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency issued a nationwide ban on K2 and five chemicals used to make it. Depending on the brand, you can still get 10 grams of synthetic marijuana for about $50. A joint can sell for as little as $2.
So how is synthetic marijuana still being sold?
Synthetic marijuana became popular during its unregulated run around 2009, and K2 was the most famous brand. In recent years, hundreds, if not thousands, of brands have popped up. Chemists simply avoid using the banned chemicals, therefore sidestepping the law, and are back on the market. Once the new product is released, bodegas and corner stores sell the product mostly under the table. Most large-quantity sales are made online. And of course, some forms of it are sold on the street.
What are the effects of synthetic marijuana?
During the influx of synthetic-marijuana sales in 2009, side effects were listed as rapid heart rate, vomiting, agitation and hallucinations. Although those side effects are still present, the side effects keep growing because the chemical compounds keep being changed in an attempt to circumvent the law. In April 2015, hospitals across the country saw a rise in emergency room visits after some 1,000 people suffered adverse reactions to synthetic marijuana. During the 2015 uptick, health departments in Alabama, Mississippi and New York issued alerts about Spice users being rushed to hospitals because of extreme anxiety, violent behavior and delusions, with some of the cases resulting in death, the New York Times reports.
So why use it?
It's a cheap and effective way to get high, making the drug attractive to teens and the homeless. Users can experience a high for less than 5 bucks. Once the chemical compound has been modified, the "incense," as it's listed on websites, becomes easy to obtain.
So what happens now?
Some believe that legalizing marijuana nationwide would drive down demand for synthetic alternatives, which don't show up on standard drug tests.
"I believe that part of the blame for the increase in the popularity of K2 and other smokable synthetics lies in our outdated marijuana laws," New York City Councilman Corey Johnson said during a 2015 council meeting to address the city's K2 epidemic. "Some people smoke K2 to avoid a positive drug test result for marijuana—a much safer drug. This is another reason that we should be taxing and regulating marijuana, rather than criminalizing it and driving people to alternatives like K2."