By ALEX MITCHELL
Capitol News Service
LANSING—New versions of dangerous synthetic drugs could be outlawed quickly after they’re invented under a proposal that would let state authorities act faster than the legislature.
“These drugs are a hazard to public health,” said Sen. Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge, who is sponsoring the bill.
The active ingredients in synthetic marijuana are applied to various dried vegetation. A slight alteration can create a new compound that is not one of the three synthetic chemicals on the federal Drug Enforcement Agency’s Schedule 1 list, a list of illegal drugs that have no recognized medicinal use such as heroin and LSD, Jones said.
“A rogue chemist would go in and alter the molecular structure of an illegal substance, creating a similar effect but a different subject,” Jones said.
His legislation allows the director of the Michigan Department of Community Health to ask the Michigan Board of Pharmacy to outlaw a substance his department considers a public health hazard. Within 10 days the board would hold a public hearing to decide if the substance should be listed as controlled.
“We still would codify it into statue, after the fact, but this would get it off the market right away,” Jones said.
Lawmakers could also decide against outlawing the substance if they disagree with the decision made at the public hearing.
Synthetic marijuana was outlawed in Michigan for a brief period between October and December of 2010 before the ban was repealed. There has been debate between Jones and former Gov. Jennifer Granholm as to why this legislation was repealed.
An October bill made it illegal to have or use synthetic marijuana or an ecstasy-like synthetic called “BZP”. It called for up to one year in jail and fines of up to $2,000 for misdemeanors. Felony cases involved more severe penalties.
But during a busy lame duck session, lawmakers failed to include those same penalties in a drug sentencing bill. When former Gov. Granholm signed the bill without that language, the ban was inadvertently repealed.
“One of her final acts was sending a message saying it had to be fixed. I had to go in and fix it,” Jones said.
But Granholm’s press secretary said that attempts to blame the governor were “hypocritical and laughable” as Jones co-sponsored the legislation.
Synthetic marijuana is created by placing chemicals with psychoactive effects, similar to those of marijuana, onto a mixture of dried herbs. It is often sold in packages by the gram, similar to marijuana, and marketed under several names such as K2 or Cloud Nine. Bag labels read “for incense use only” which protects the products from regulation by the Food and Drug Administration.
Head shops and gas stations near college campuses are typical carriers of synthetic marijuana. It can also be purchased from online websites.
While synthetic marijuana has not been on the market long enough for the health effects to be determined, there have been reports from Michigan and across the nation of people suffering from harmful side effects.
Poison control centers have received more than 4,500 calls over the past two years from people using synthetic drugs, according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers.
“Last year I was aware of four students reporting very unpleasant side effects from K2, ranging from severe vomiting to extreme paranoia,” said Becky Allen, health educator for the Olin Health Center at Michigan State University. “Extremely disturbing auditory and visual hallucinations were reported as well. All four cases required some type of medical intervention.”
Allen said that fewer students use the drug than before because they found it to be unpleasant.
“Anecdotally, my understanding is those who have experienced K2 and other types of synthetic marijuana are largely unimpressed with the high it produces and/or find it so unpleasant that they do not repeat the experience,” she said.
Drew Najor, a Michigan State University student from Birmingham, and former user of synthetic marijuana, agrees. He used the drug to get a marijuana-like high while avoiding the risk of getting in trouble by using marijuana, he said. He soon stopped.
“I freaked out one day while smoking it,” Najor said. “I could recognize physical objects in the room, but couldn’t grasp where I was. Granted, I had tried K2 several times before this incident, but this was enough to change my opinion of it.”
The incident made him an advocate for actual marijuana.
“I don’t trust the synthetic chemicals as much as I trust a plant. I think that it could have long term effects that I don’t know about.”
Najor said people associate a negative stigma with marijuana users, so they would rather use synthetics because they are legal.
“By criminalizing marijuana, we are ensuring people will look for alternatives.”
Jones said that he wants to crack down on the stores that sell these products as opposed to the people who use them.
“Absolutely I am more concerned with cracking down on people, greedy people, who manufacture this stuff and sell it to unsuspecting students,” Jones said. “I think it outrageous that people try to benefit financially off students.”
Najor disagrees. Responsibility lies in the hands of the user, he said.
“If you go purchase a half gallon of rum from Quality Dairy and drink it and get sick from alcohol poisoning, nobody would blame QD.”
Najor said that if stores are going to continue selling synthetic marijuana, it has to be regulated.
If the bill becomes law, and synthetic marijuana is deemed a hazard, Michigan law enforcement would have a new substance to watch for.
“If it is illegal we would handle it like anything else is illegal,” said Sgt. Florene McGlothian-Taylor of the Michigan State University Police Department. “That is what we do; we uphold the laws of Michigan.”
© 2011, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Nonmembers cannot reproduce CNS articles without written permission.
By ALEX MITCHELL