JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- There may be nothing like the real thing, but some industrious marijuana users have seized on an obscure but easily accessible substance that mimics the drug's effects on the brain -- creating a popular trade in legal dope that has stymied law enforcement authorities.
The users are buying a product known as K2 -- or ''Spice,'' Genie'' and ''Zohai'' -- that is commonly sold in head shops as incense. Produced in China and Korea, the mixture of herbs and spices is sprayed with a synthetic compound chemically similar to THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana. Users roll it up in joints or inhale it from pipes, just like the real thing.
Though banned in most of Europe, K2's key ingredients are not regulated in the United States -- a gap that has prompted lawmakers in Missouri and Kansas to consider new legislation.
''This isn't Jerry Garcia's marijuana,'' said state Rep. Jeff Roorda, a Democrat from the eastern Missouri town of Barnhart. ''They've used chemicals to avoid creating something that's already illegal.''
Authorities in Johnson County, Kan., discovered ex-convicts on probation smoking K2, and said it is spreading to high school students.
''This has become extremely popular,'' said Linda Weber, owner of The Vise smoke shop in the St. Louis suburb of St. Peters, who said she only sells to adults.
She said she sells about 60 packages a week, with suppliers calling her weekly to pitch new brands. She said she's keeping an eye on what state lawmakers decide, though, because ''I definitely don't want to be selling it if it comes out that it's harmful.''
K2 costs between $20 and $50 for three grams -- similar to the street price of marijuana -- but with the key advantages of being legal and undetectable in drug tests.
The key ingredients are believed to be the unintended result of scientific research on marijuana's effects.