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What Is K2? The Synthetic Cannabinoid Causing Illnesses at Prisons

photo of prison cell
Prisons in Ohio and Pennsylvania have experienced illnesses caused by drug exposure

In recent weeks, prisons in both Ohio and Pennsylvania have experienced a rash of illnesses caused by drug exposure. At the Ross Correctional Institution in Chillicothe, a fentanyl-heroin mixture was identified as sickening two dozen prison guards, nurses, and an inmate. In Pennsylvania, the statewide prison system remains locked down following illness from a synthetic drug.    

Also known as K2 or Spice, these potent substances are created in a lab.

Michael Lynch, director of the Pittsburgh Poison Center, says they mimic the active ingredients in marijuana, and interact with the same receptors in the brain.

"They do it much more potently than any marijuana plant product could."

But Lynch says people who use K2 report the feeling is not similar to using marijuana, but rather an amphetamine, like cocaine.

Department of Corrections officials say they think the substance is being sprayed on paper and then brought into prisons, possibly through the mail.

In response, the Department will no longer pass original copies of mail onto prisoners. Instead, they'll get photocopies.

Special Agent Patrick Trainor with the Drug Enforcement Agency in Philadelphia says drugs coming into prisons is not new. But he says synthetic cannabinoids are more easily transported than other drugs, such as heroin or marijuana.

"A synthetic drug like K2 is not going to have a detectable odor or smell like those other drugs do."

Synthetic drugs lie in a murky legal territory. K2 is illegal, but...

"What we see is that a lot of the chemical manufacturers will alter the chemical composition of these drugs, which then makes then legal until we can schedule them again."

Unlike marijuana, synthetic cannabinoids don't show up on standard drug tests.