State debates penalties for new drug possession

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Capital News Service
LANSING – While the “club drug” ecstasy found its way on the federal controlled substances list in 1985, a similar drug, N-benzylpiperazine (BZP) was starting to receive attention from recreational users in California.
By l999, BZP use had taken off in New Zealand, then Europe and North America.
Although the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) classified BZP in the same category as the highly addictive drugs ecstasy, LSD and heroin in 2004, Michigan is just now seeing it as a problem.
Oakland County Rep. Lisa Brown, D-West Bloomfield, is pushing legislation to create tougher consequences for the drug’s smuggling, sale, distribution or possession.
According to the National Drug Intelligence Center, BZP is a stimulant that produces effects similar to methamphetamine-like ecstasy. However, BZP is 10 to 20 percent less powerful than ecstasy, so it’s often combined with another drug for hallucinogenic effects.
“While BZP is commonly mislabeled as a ‘natural’ or ‘legal’ alternative to ecstasy, BZP is a synthetic substance that doesn’t occur naturally,” said Christelle Legault, a media relations officer with Health Canada, a national government agency.
Legault said products containing BZP in Canada are illegal. However, there are no penalties for its possession, import, export, distribution and production.
As a result, the drug is finding its way into Michigan, especially in the southeast.
Oakland County has seen a “dramatic increase,” according Brown, the primary sponsor of the proposal to crack down on BZP.
Oakland County Prosecutor Jessica Cooper said the substance has showed up in the county’s lab analyses 37 times since 2007 – 22 times in 2009 alone.
Additionally, the Michigan State Crime Laboratory has found 149 cases involving BZP in its chemical analysis in the last six months, she said.
According to Brown, “The drug is often sold as ecstasy. It’s targeted for young adults mainly because of what it looks like.”
Brown said some pills even have depictions of President Obama on them to appeal to younger users.
Rep. Fred Durhal, D-Detroit, a co-sponsor, said that’s perhaps the most dangerous part of the drug being trafficked in Michigan.
“Kids have easy access to this drug,” he said. “We have an obligation to safeguard the children in our state.”
Other co-sponsors include Reps. Mark Meadows, D-East Lansing; Lesia Liss, D-Warren and Matt Lori, R-Constantine.
Rich Isaacson, public information officer for the Detroit division of the DEA, said that although his agency doesn’t collect statistics on user rates, it has had active investigations since 2004. He couldn’t give details of the locations of ongoing investigations.
“Typically most people would consider it a club drug, but it’s certainly more widely available,” Isaacson said.
Michigan has no specific law regarding the sale, possession, distribution or manufacturing of BZP.
If the legislation passes, those caught in possession of BZP could face two years in prison, $2,000 in fines or both. Those who manufacture or deliver it could face up to seven years, $10,000 or both. Traffickers could face up to 20 years, a $1 million fine or both.
Those penalties are in line with federal standards for the most strictly classified drugs like ecstasy, LSD and heroin.
The bill has passed the House and is awaiting action in the Senate Health Policy Committee.
© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.
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