When the 65 or so participants in Lancaster County Drug Court were called to an emergency meeting this summer about K2, 14 admitted to using the drug, a brand of synthetic marijuana sold legally as herbal incense.
It was somewhat of a crisis for the program, said Jared Gavin, drug court coordinator.
"I think the entire team was surprised," he said.
Drug court, a voluntary alternative to the standard criminal justice procedure, is supposed to help people recover from addiction and become more accountable for their actions, Gavin said; but here was about 20 percent of its participants admitting they'd smoked a drug they knew flouted that mission.
"Basically, the judges just asked why," Gavin said.
The answer, at least for some: It was a way to cheat the system.
K2 and other brands of synthetic marijuana don't show up on any of the drug tests available in Nebraska. That includes those typically used in drug court, probation and parole, as well as the tests local companies rely on to screen their employees.
"We would have to send it out to a private lab," said Sue Rutledge, drug testing coordinator for state probation.
As few as five labs in the country screen urine samples for the chemicals in K2, said Paul Cary, a Missouri toxicologist who assists drug courts, including Lancaster County's. The only one in the Midwest is in St. Paul, Minn.
The tests can cost 10 to 15 times more than those from local labs, and they aren't exhaustive because the makers of K2 and similar drugs constantly change what chemicals they use to give the herbs their punch.
At least for now, Rutledge said, it would take "suspicion that a client is using" for the state to send a probationer's urine sample to one of those labs. That means either being caught red-handed or confessing to a probation officer.
"When we go out and do home visits, for example, that's one of the things we look for," said Gene Cotter, the state's chief adult probation officer for the Lincoln area. "We've seized some during home checks."
Lori Griggs, Cotter's counterpart for juvenile probation, said her office has relied on parents and schools as well, but many young people have come forward on their own.
"Right now, they're just admitting to it," Griggs said. "They can be pretty honest."
Gavin, too, said he was happy with the number of drug court participants who admitted to using. Since the May meeting, five of the 14 who confessed have been kicked out of the program, and another three participants who were caught using K2 are being terminated as well.
Juvenile users are more likely to come forward when they learn of the dangers, Griggs said. Some probationers have reported suffering from extreme headaches, and other young people have been hospitalized for excessive vomiting or seizures after using K2.
Glue and gasoline are similarly abused, Griggs said, but never caught on to the extent K2 has.
Rutledge and Gavin wouldn't release the number of samples their agencies have sent off to be tested for K2, but Rutledge said she expects testing to become more common in the near future, whether it's done locally or contracted with a lab from another state.
"I anticipate the price will go down with time," she said.
The answer in the meantime has been increased awareness across the state.
That includes letting employers know about K2, said James Horrocks, an Omaha-based doctor who oversees drug test results for Nebraska Occupational Health.
The company, which provides drug and alcohol testing for employers, might soon offer to outsource K2 tests for its clients, Horrocks said, but he's not sure many will be interested.
"It'll be a cost thing, and I don't think everybody's gonna want to jump on that, just for routine," he said. "I'm sure that's what we're going to have to do if it turns out to be something people really want to use."