Governor's office seeks more legislation to combat synthetic marijuana

Current laws can't keep up with changing drug chemistry

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Just two years after the Iowa Legislature based a bill making synthetic marijuana illegal, officials in the governor’s office of drug control policy are looking for a quicker way to keep new, chemically legal synthetics off the shelves.

Though the Legislature banned six common chemicals found in the products in 2011, Steve Lukan, Iowa’s drug policy control director, said the manufacturers can easily produce chemically different, but very similar substances that some say pose a threat to consumers.

Under the current system, the substances can only be added to the controlled substances list after they are approved by the Legislature, or if the federal government puts a substance on the list, in which the state typically follows suit.

This slow process, Lukan says, makes it easy for companies to hire scientists to come up with new compounds that have similar effects, but differ chemically from those already on the controlled substances list. The companies then market the synthetic drugs as legal and safe and the compounds cannot be banned until they are collected by police and sent to the state crime lab for testing.

“There is always a challenge with the different compounds changing and people being able to put them on the shelf,” Lukan said. “When the law passed, I think retailers took these things off the shelves and a lot of families woke up to realize these are very dangerous problems, but we still see a committed group of sellers and people are still buying it.”

Synthetic drugs in Iowa

Though no buyer can be exactly sure of what chemical compound he or she is getting in a packet of these substances — which are also marketed as K2, Spice, bath salts and incense — the drugs are said to have a wide range of physical and psychological effects.

Though charges related to possession of synthetic marijuana are not well documented, officials in both Linn and Johnson counties have reported strange behavior that is believed to be associated with use of the drugs.

In one Iowa City incident, a college-aged man called police to his apartment reporting his roommate was “freaking out” and holding a knife. In a separate incident in Cedar Rapids, a man was found lying in the middle of the road and police reported he had smoked the substance. Earlier this month, an Iowa City man was charged with domestic abuse after he allegedly pinned his wife to the ground and hit her while on synthetic marijuana.

Lukan said synthetic marijuana also claimed 15 lives in 2011, and an 18-year-old boy, from Indianola took his own life 90 minutes after smoking the substance in 2010.

Iowa City police, aided by the Johnson County Multi-Agency Narcotics Task Force, also seized several synthetic drug substances from In-Zone, 116 East Washington St. in Iowa City in August 2012 after receiving multiple reports that the business was selling bath salts. The items seized were sent to the state crime lab to be tested, and Iowa City police Sgt. Vicki Lalla said Monday that no charges have been filed in that case yet, adding the department has conducted 29 seizures of synthetic drugs in the last year.

Proposed legislation

Though Lukan said there was a dramatic drop-off in the number of incidents related to synthetic drugs following the legislation passed in 2011, he said the public health threat is still pervasive and cases have increased as manufacturers find ways around the law.

To combat those challenges, the governor’s office has introduced two pieces of legislation.

The first bill gives the state pharmacy board emergency powers to temporarily designate a substance a controlled substance if it poses an imminent hazard to public safety. That bill also adds more synthetic compounds to the controlled substances list and increases the punishment to manufacture, deliver, or possess the substance from an aggravated misdemeanor to a Class D felony.

The second bill makes synthetic marijuana subject to drug tax stamp laws and expands the definition of a dealer to include businesses who sell the products in hopes of deterring such behavior.

Though it’s unclear whether the bill will pass, Lukan said some legislators are hesitant to push it forward because there haven’t been enough prosecutions under the existing law. He said the cases are difficult to prosecute because the substances have to be sent to the crime lab for testing before they can be deemed illegal, and the current punishment is only a misdemeanor.

Education efforts

Though legislators from both sides of the aisle seem to agree that the substances have the potential to be dangerous, some think public education would be a more effective avenue.

Sen. Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids, said though he supports raising the tax on illegal drugs so prosecutors feel it’s worth pursuing, he is less interested in increasing penalties.

“It’s more of a public health problem than a criminal problem and if you increase the penalties you increase the prison population and that costs a lot of money and I’m not sure that the best way to treat substance abuse problems,” Hogg said, adding he thinks prevention programs should be expanded throughout the community.

Following the death of their 18-year-old son David, Mike and Jan Rozga have spearheaded a national effort to educate people on the potentially dangerous side effects of the drug. The pair are hoping to spread the word about synthetic drugs through their website, and by talking to different schools and community groups. The White House recognized them for their advocacy efforts in persuading congress to ban the substances.

Mike Rozga, David’s father, said the effort has been motivated by keeping other people informed about the drugs to avoid more tragedies.

“David took his life after he had smoked K2 and, at that time, there was really nothing available. There were no laws on the books, there was no educational stuff we had ever heard of, and the kids themselves had only heard of it very recently,” Rozga said. “So, you know, after his death and everything we decided that we needed to play a part in educating people as to what was out there because we believe that if there were better education and better laws and so forth that this wouldn’t have happened.”

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