County targets synthetic 'marijuana substitutes'
by Jessica Loeding
Sep 12, 2013 | 2608 views | 0 0 comments | 34 34 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Coming off reports of 12 people sickened by synthetic marijuana in coastal Georgia, Bartow County on Wednesday took action to tackle the issue locally.

During his regular meeting, Commissioner Steve Taylor signed an ordinance targeting “unregulated marijuana substitutes” and “synthetic cannabinoids.” State law focuses on the chemical compound sprayed onto the materials, complicating the enforcement and prosecution process.

County Administrator Peter Olson said the administration moved to take action at the request of law enforcement.

“The state has banned what are termed ‘synthetic cannabinoids’ by classifying them as Schedule I drugs. That statute contains a variety of specific chemical formulas, and the illegal drug producers respond by slightly altering their chemical formula to take it out of the definition of a Schedule I drug. It becomes a cat-and-mouse game of move and countermove,” he said. “This ordinance uses a definition that does not rely on chemical formulas, and so attempts to prevent a slight alteration of the drug from taking it out of the ordinance.”

Saying his agency receives almost daily complaints stemming from synthetic products, Bartow-Cartersville Drug Task Force Commander Capt. Mark Mayton called Wednesday’s move a huge step in the struggle to remove unregulated substitutes from retail shelves.

“There were such voids in the state laws that the manufacturers were using to get around what the legislators were putting into law. This just fills that void until some solid state statute comes along that’s all-encompassing,” he said. “Now it gives us the ability to target the entire gamut of synthetic cannabinoids, all of it. They can’t get around the chemical composition. There’s basically a total ban in Bartow County of the synthetic marijuana, or cannabinoids.”

Effective immediately, the ordinance addresses the phenomena of “bath salts” and similar products, which are chemical creations designed to induce an altered state when ingested or inhaled, and will be enforced by the Bartow County Sheriff’s Office and DTF, Olson explained.

“The ordinance was requested by the DTF, and if they see it as a problem, we see it as a problem,” he said. “It has been a large problem in Florida and Ohio, and so, if we can head it off before it becomes a large problem here, that is a good thing.”

Calling the problem a growing issue, Sheriff Clark Millsap said the crafting of the ordinance attempts to keep officers ahead of the game. “We see this as a way to be proactive instead of reactive.”

For Mayton, the measure offers agencies immediate enforcement and prosecution options.

“Right now, if we seize a substance we think to be synthetic marijuana, or cannabinoid, before we can make a charge on that substance, it has to go to the crime lab, have scientific analysis done there, be confirmed that there is an illegal substance on it and then we go back and charge,” he said. “Under this current ordinance, it gives not only us as the drug task force but even the uniform presence in the county the ability to charge on the spot. If you are in possession of it, if you’re distributing it, if you are manufacturing it, if you are selling it, it is illegal in this county to possess in any shape, form or fashion synthetic cannabinoids, including the bath salts.

“We have been handicapped, for the lack of a better word, for some time now because of the chemists working around the state law, so we have been fighting this battle for a long time. … Under this current ordinance we drafted, we are able to take enforcement actions immediately. That’s the real benefit; it’s another tool in the toolbox.”

Referred to as “K2” or “spice,” synthetic products located on store shelves may be marketed under countless labels — tobacco herbs, incense spice, aromatherapy incense, bath salts, potpourri, herbal smoking blends, plant food — with names from the mundane “Sage” to the more dynamic “Hayze Trainwreck.” Regardless of the moniker, the substances aim to mimic the effects of marijuana.

The products, however, pose harmful and potentially deadly risks to users.

“This stuff is bad. It says, ‘Not for human consumption.’ That should tell you right there, ‘Do not put this stuff in your body,’” Millsap said.

Able to cause paranoia, elevated heart rate and psychosis among others, synthetic cannabinoids contain no real marijuana.

“I want to make it clear — I’ve said this time and time again — I hate that we call it synthetic marijuana. There’s nothing about it marijuana. … It’s … a potpourri sprayed with chemicals … that you use for aromatic purposes,” Mayton said. “… They grind it up and texture it to look like marijuana but marijuana is a unique plant. There is no other plant on the face of this planet like marijuana. … It’s not even a plant — it’s ground up wood shavings most of the time or some kind of fibrous material. There’s no marijuana anywhere in it.”

Late in August, 12 people in Brunswick were hospitalized after smoking a synthetic marijuana product called “Crazy Clown.”

“Dozens of users of these drugs nationwide have died, and others have done bizarre things, such as running naked into the interstate, taking bites out of their dog or drinking their own urine,” Olson said. “They have been described as ‘cocaine on steroids’ and they cause paranoia and irrational behavior, making users a danger to themselves and others.”

Increasingly, users of synthetic marijuana are youth.

“We, of course, support local business and want to see all our local stores making a profit, but products such as these, and related drug paraphernalia that is marketed under an innocuous name, only have one purpose — trying to evade the law and deliver a dangerous ‘high’ to kids,” Olson said.

A copy of the ordinance adopted by Taylor has been sent to each municipality, Mayton said, with the push on to approve the measure countywide.

“… Every city in the county has received a copy of the current ordinance, and we are asking that they give strong consideration to the adoption of this ordinance. It will be unilateral in the county; the entire county will have the same ordinance,” he said.

Retailers in the county within the coming week will receive a drafted letter along with a copy of the ordinance, Mayton said.

“Once we get all those stores … provided with notification of this ordinance exists …, then we are going to take immediate, aggressive enforcement actions,” he added.

Law enforcement also will continue to send seized synthetic substances to the state crime lab for analysis, Mayton said, adding that, if the substance returns as a Schedule I drug, the more severe state charges — a felony — will be pursued.