State tackles grey area of synthetic drugs

Current policy makes synthetic drug laws difficult to enforce.

Cody Nelson

Stadium Village’s Smokedale Tobacco location was raided for synthetic drugs about two weeks ago.

Store manager David Yousef said a U.S. marshal and Drug Enforcement Administration agents stormed the building, looking for synthetic marijuana and amphetamines — commonly called spice, K2 or bath salts. Yousef had to close the store for the duration of their search.

Though the agents didn’t find any illegal substances at Smokedale, state officials say synthetic drugs are a problem in Minnesota. In response, a newly formed House of Representatives select committee held its first hearing in St. Paul on Tuesday.

The committee will study the synthetic drug problem and present possible solutions during the 2014 legislative session.

Synthetic drugs are federally outlawed and treated like their drug equivalents, if prosecutors can prove they have similar chemistry and effects.

University of Minnesota Police Sgt. Jim Nystrom said UMPD hasn’t prosecuted anyone in the University area for synthetic drug offenses but said there’s likely usage on campus.

“I’m convinced in my
experience here that [synthetic drug use] does exist,” Nystrom said. “There’s no doubt about that. It’s just a matter of the frequency and the amount of use.”

Yousef said synthetic marijuana came onto the market about four years ago and was sold in small baggies, commonly labeled as incense.

“The profit margin on it was just unbelievable,” he said.

In recent years, however, state and federal laws have cracked down on synthetic drugs, making them illegal and stepping up raids on stores suspected of selling them.

“All it takes,” Yousef said, “is [someone saying] ‘Smokedale or the Hideaway is selling synthetic marijuana,’ and they raid it.”

Laws banning synthetic drugs can be difficult to enforce because of slight differences in the drugs’ effects, said medicinal chemistry professor David
Ferguson.

“Whenever you’re talking about [synthetic drugs],” he said, “it gets grey quick.”

Cody Wiberg, executive director of the Minnesota Board of Pharmacy, testified before the committee Tuesday and echoed Ferguson’s point, saying prosecutors have difficulty proving that synthetics are analogs for illegal drugs.

Though prosecutors can typically have an expert prove the synthetic version of a drug is similar to the common one, it’s often more difficult to prove the effects are also similar, which is necessary to get a conviction.

This is largely because there hasn’t been a lot of research on synthetic drugs, Wiberg said.

“They haven’t really been studied in humans,” Wiberg said. “Instead, you have to rely on more anecdotal evidence, which is not as reliable.”

Research on the substances could help with drug abuse and prevention programs, Ferguson said. But funding is hard to get because there’s “no public good” in making analogs of illegal drugs, which he said researchers have to do in order to analyze them.

Wiberg said legislators should do more to increase criminal penalties for people trafficking the substances.

“It needs to be a multifaceted approach,” he said.

Data on synthetic drug use has been historically hard to get, Ferguson said, because people won’t readily admit to usage and hospitals rarely ask about them.

Though little data is available, the American Association of Poison Control Centers reported calls for synthetic marijuana exposure have decreased nationwide by nearly 60 percent since last year.

Ferguson said he’s unsure if the committee will be effective, especially if they don’t reach out to appropriate experts in the area.

“Unless you really get down to the science,” he said, “I’m not sure what kind of progress you’re going to make.”