A 13-year-old boy from Augusta testified before the state Committee on Criminal Justice and Public Safety on March 22 in favor of a bill that would prohibit the sale and possession of synthetic cannabinoids, better known as “Spice” or “K2.” He had been at a friend’s house, he told the committee, when the friend pulled out a small red bag that said, “Stay high,” on it, which they then smoked. The boy said he couldn’t see straight and blacked out. His hospital stay lasted four days.
Synthetic cannabinoids should not be legal, let alone marketed to children. But they are, despite some compounds being illegal under state and federal law. Though the product is often labeled “not for human consumption” or as “incense,” medical professionals and law enforcement know it is being sold at convenience stores, gas stations and “head” shops and that it’s being smoked and causing harm.
They know colorful packages, sometimes with pictures or caricatures of legitimate products for youth, help direct the drugs at children and teenagers. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 11.4 percent of high school seniors reported using Spice in the past year, even though adverse health effects include seizures, hallucinations, paranoid behavior, agitation, anxiety, nausea, vomiting, racing heartbeat and elevated blood pressure.
It’s welcome news that Chris Ruhlin, owner of Herbal Tea and Tobacco in Bangor, is completely dropping synthetic cannabinoids after a request from interim Bangor Police Chief Peter Arno.
Richard Hatch, who oversees compliance at Cash X-Press in Bangor, said he would also stop selling the product after his inventory runs out. Unfortunately, not all business owners are as responsible as Ruhlin and Hatch. LD 661, sponsored by Rep. Adam Goode, is necessary.
The bill is a good starting point for better controlling synthetic cannabinoids, which are psychoactive chemicals dissolved in solvent, applied to plant material and smoked, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Originally developed to facilitate the study of pain treatments, they have since been abused, appearing first in Europe in 2005 and the United States in 2009.
The challenge with synthetic drugs is that they keep changing. When lawmakers ban specific substances, chemists change the chemical composition to essentially create a new legal substance, even though it has the same effect as the prohibited substance.
“Maine scheduled four synthetic cannabinoids in 2011 only to have those substituted with other cannabinoids that were offered for sale … in July 2012 when the law went into effect,” Roy McKinney, director of the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency, told the criminal justice committee.
So it’s reasonable for the Legislature to follow McKinney’s advice and make sure LD 661 introduces a broad definition of synthetic cannabinoids — to account for potential future changes in the drug’s chemical makeup — without being so generic that it prohibits potentially useful substances. Legislators can research legal language adopted by more than 30 states that criminalizes specific categories of substances, not the individual substances themselves.
Susan Lamb, executive director of the Maine Chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, put it well when she spoke in support of the proposed law, saying, “We believe that all of the variations and permutations of illegal drugs … that have the same impact on the brain’s receptors should trigger the same treatment under our criminal laws.”
Oami Amarasingham, public policy counsel for the the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, was the only person to testify against the bill. She raised the legitimate concern of the costs associated with potentially putting more people in jail for drug crimes. “Banning possession of synthetic cannabinoids is another example of criminalizing activity that should instead be treated as a public health issue at a time when our state can least afford it,” she said.
The committee should ensure that any penalties are fair and consistent, and it is important for the state to support prevention and treatment programs. But this bill would essentially criminalize a substance that’s already supposed to be illegal. It’s dangerous, used by young people and simply should not be sold in stores. The Legislature should address the Spice problem before it gets worse.