The nation's capital has joined more than 40 states in calling for a ban on synthetic marijuana and bath salts, a pair of drug genres that have raised eyebrows among law enforcement, parents and antidrug advocates alike because of their off-the-shelf accessibility and frightening effects.
While voters in Colorado and Washington state decided this month to legalize small amounts of naturally growing marijuana, an increasing number of lawmakers have decided in recent years to ban drugs that incorporate a hodgepodge of man-made ingredients, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The drugs targeted by the new laws include synthetic cannabinoids with product names such as "K2" or "Spice" and substituted cathinones, or "bath salts," which initially were suspected in a high-profile May 26 attack in Miami on a homeless man whose face was practically eaten off before police shot his attacker.
The Drug Enforcement Administration describes synthetic marijuana as a mix of herbs and spices that are sprayed with a synthetic substance similar to THC, the psychoactive ingredient in traditional marijuana. It is often marked as incense but can be smoked and causes "paranoia, panic attacks and giddiness," the agency says.
First appearing in the U.S. in late 2010, bath salts are similar to amphetamines and cocaine, according to the DEA. They usually are sniffed or snorted and can cause a rapid heart beat, paranoia and delusions. Among early high-profile incidents involving the drug, one user in Louisiana committed suicide in November 2010 because he thought police were after him. Another user in 2011 was found wandering the West Virginia woods in women's underwear after he had stabbed a goat.
The drug is a member of the "white crystal" family of designer drugs that includes crystal meth and PCP, and have quickly gained notoriety as cheap, potent, addictive, readily available and occasionally lethal.
"They are completely invented and manufactured without any regulation, without any quality control, with nothing," said D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, chairman of the Committee on the Judiciary, which forwarded a bill Thursday to restrict the drugs in the District. "At least with a natural ingredient, you know what it is. Whereas with synthetics you have not a clue what it is and it's sold [as] incense – and the person can kill themselves."
In July, federal law enforcement launched a nationwide crackdown that netted more than 90 importers, middlemen and retailers of synthetic marijuana and bath salts.
But state lawmakers have grappled with the best way to treat these drugs, since they defy traditional classifications and feature a mix bag of alterable chemical compounds. Initial legislation in 2009 and 2010 targeted specific products, but new variants of the drugs prompted states in the past two years to impose wholesale legislative or administrative bans on the genre of drugs, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
In October, Alabama reclassified Spice and 23 other substances in the same Category 1 list of drugs as marijuana and cocaine. Similar measures went into effect in South Carolina in October, in Michigan in July and in New Jersey in March.
Mr. Mendelson said the District has been mulling various bills to ban the drugs for about three years. He rejected any notion that the move to control the substances went against the grain of national tends to liberalize possession of drugs, such as marijuana out West.
"That's a separate issue," he said.
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