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State widens ban on sale, possession of synthetic marijuana in New Jersey

marijuanaplant031011_optBY TOM HESTER SR.
NEWJERSEYNEWSROOM.COM

A statewide ban on the manufacture, sale, and possession of any of what is described as the hundreds of dangerous, manmade chemicals designed to mimic the effects of marijuana, commonly known as “synthetic marijuana,” “K2,” or “Spice,” was announced Wednesday by state Attorney General Jeffrey S. Chiesa.

In April, New Jersey adopted a temporary federal ban on five variants of synthetic marijuana. Pending state legislation would ban three variants of the drug, and pending federal legislation would ban additional synthetic marijuana substances.

However, Chiesa said hundreds of variants of the drug have been sold nationwide and in New Jersey, in defiance of attempts to declare synthetic marijuana illegal.

According to reported data, the attorney general said, between 2010 and 2011 the number of synthetic marijuana exposures reported to poison control centers jumped by 139 percent nationwide, and by an alarming 711 percent in New Jersey alone. Of the 146 cases reported in New Jersey last year, 92 percent resulted in symptoms alarming enough to require treatment in a hospital. A recent, nationwide study funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse shows synthetic marijuana is the third most commonly abused drug by high school seniors, after marijuana and abused prescription drugs.

Chiesa noted that the ban, issued by the state Division of Consumer Affairs, is much more comprehensive than previous efforts to eliminate synthetic marijuana. It includes both broad and specific language that includes all possible variants of the drug.

“This expansive action is necessary due to the unique nature of synthetic marijuana and other so-called designer drugs,” Chiesa said. “When one product is banned, the manufacturers and dealers find it all too easy to evade the law by creating new toxic products that have similar effects on the brain, but are not specifically identified as illegal. Today, we are ending this dangerous game played by drug dealers. We are making it unambiguously clear that if a synthetic chemical is being sold because it mimics the effects of marijuana, the dealer is committing a crime.”

The order bans 10 classes of synthetic compounds that imitate the effects of marijuana, and all known or unknown variants of the drug that would fall within each class. The order also expressly includes “any other synthetic chemical compound that is a cannabinoid receptor agonist and mimics the pharmacological effect of naturally occurring cannabinoids” – in other words, any synthetic chemical that mimics the effects on the brain of marijuana’s active ingredient.

The order adds these chemicals to the list of Controlled Dangerous Substances in New Jersey. As a CDS, the drugs are now subject to the highest level of state control, like cocaine and heroin. Manufacture, distribution, sale, or possession of the chemicals is now a third-degree crime. Violators may be subject to a fine of up to $25,000 and imprisonment for a three- to five-year term.

“In addition to equipping law enforcement with the means to stop disreputable retailers from selling this poison in New Jersey, our Order sets the record straight about the toxic nature of these chemical concoctions,” Consumer Affairs Director Thomas R. Calcagni said. “To the extent people once believed these substances were safe because they were legal – we’ve now made it perfectly plain that the sale and possession of these drugs is criminal, and their use is extremely dangerous and potentially deadly.”

Sen. Shirley K. Turner (D-Mercer) and Assemblywoman

Mary Pat Angelini (R-Monmouth) applauded the ban.

“I have long been advocating for the state to take a more forceful approach to these products and those that profit from their sale,” Angelini said.

Angelini, who is the director of a non-profit that seeks to combat substance abuse, is the sponsor of legislation that would permanently ban synthetic marijuana products.

“These products can have serious and, in some cases, fatal consequences,” the Assemblywoman said. “Enacting this ban makes it clear that these products are not safe and selling or purchasing synthetic marijuana will not be tolerated.”

Turner said she plans to introduce her version of legislation which to impose a ban on chemicals that produce effects similar to marijuana. “Enacting a statewide statutory ban will ensure there is no ambiguity about the legality of these drugs or the potentially disastrous effects that could result from their use,” the senator said.

Turner’s noted that a police raid of Wonderland Smoke Shop in Lawrence, netted 50 pounds of synthetic marijuana valued at nearly $150,000.

“With the number of colleges and high schools in close proximity to the smoke shop discovered selling this substance, I am extremely concerned about the number of students who had such ready access to this drug,” Turner said. “We have to ensure that students are aware that this is an illicit substance and recognize its potential to cause seizures, heart attacks and even death. Enacting a statewide ban through legislation will serve to highlight the dangers of this substance and send a message that we are serious about cracking down on those attempting to target minors with designer drugs.”

Chiesa said the toxic ingredients of synthetic marijuana can have devastating effects on the user:

Of the 146 cases of synthetic marijuana exposure reported to the New Jersey Poison Information and Education System in 2011, 92 percent resulted in symptoms alarming enough to require treatment in a hospital.

Synthetic marijuana has been linked to dangerous side effects including violent seizures, dangerously elevated heart rates, anxiety attacks, and hallucinations, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Published reports indicate users have committed suicide or suffered fatal injuries after suffering extreme panic attacks caused by synthetic marijuana use. Reports published in peer-reviewed journals associate synthetic marijuana use with psychosis in some patients.

In 2010, the most recent year for which comprehensive data is available, poison control centers received reports about five deaths nationwide associated with synthetic marijuana.

More recently, 14-year-old Brandon Rice, of Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania, reportedly died on Oct. 27, due to his use of synthetic marijuana smoked from a Pez candy dispenser. The severe damage to his lungs resulted in four months of suffering, prior to his death of an infection following a double lung transplant.

Alarmingly, despite the dangerous consequences of abuse, synthetic marijuana is growing in popularity as a drug of choice. According to poison control center data, its reported use has risen even more rapidly in New Jersey than in the nation as a whole:

The New Jersey Poison Education and Information System received 146 calls reporting exposure to synthetic marijuana in 2011 – a 711 percent increase from 2010. Seventy percent of the synthetic marijuana reports last year originated in Middlesex, Ocean, Monmouth, Morris, Mercer, and Atlantic counties.

Nationwide, poison control centers received 7,000 calls related to synthetic marijuana exposure – a 139 percent increase from 2010, according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers.

Synthetic marijuana is the third most commonly abused drug by high school seniors, after marijuana and abused prescription drugs, according to the 2011 Monitoring the Future Study, funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Synthetic marijuana is usually sold in small packets of approximately 500 milligrams to three grams, with brand names such as “K2,” “K3,” “Spice,” “Kush,” “Down 2 Earth,” “Comatose Candy,” and many others. The packets often contain a mixture of herbs and plant materials that have been coated with chemical agents that affect the brain. The products are often labeled as “incense” or “potpourri” in order to hide their true nature from law enforcement.

Packets of synthetic marijuana and other suspected designer drugs have been sold at gas stations, boardwalk novelty shops, and other locations across New Jersey. The packages often bear labels claiming the contents are not covered by any existing federal or state ban, creating the impression that they can be sold legally.

Chiesa said data from the State Police Office of Forensic Science illustrates how the sellers of these drugs have changed tactics to evade previous statewide and federal bans.

The Office of Forensic Science has tested hundreds of samples of “K2” products sent in by New Jersey law enforcement agencies since November 2010. Until March 31, virtually every positive test revealed one of only five popular variants of synthetic marijuana. All five of those variants were banned by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration last year.

Test results from the Office of Forensic Science show the sellers of these drugs adapted quickly in response to the new ban. Fewer and fewer samples sent in by law enforcement after April 1 tested positive for the five banned chemicals, and the dealers rapidly embraced 18 new variants of synthetic marijuana. Those new variants of the drug today represent nearly 100 percent of the synthetic marijuana products identified by law enforcement in New Jersey. None of the 18 new variants are covered by a federal or New Jersey ban.

The ban will remain in effect for 270 days, or until a regulation is adopted by the Legislature and Gov. Chris Christie.

The Wednesday announcement follows the April 28 order banning a separate category of designer drugs – the highly deadly group of drugs commonly known as “bath salts.” So-called “bath salts” are not synthetic marijuana, but belong to another class of designer drugs that mimic the effects of cathinone – a psychotropic substance found in the African shrub khat.

After enacting the ban on so-called “bath salts” drugs, the Division of Consumer Affairs launched a statewide education and enforcement initiative in partnership with schools, universities, and police agencies across New Jersey, resulting in the seizure or voluntary surrender of a total of more than 2,900 packets of suspected designer drugs, with an estimated total value of approximately $75,000, and the arrests of six individuals allegedly dealing in the banned substances. Data from the New Jersey Poison Information and Education System indicates a sharp drop in the use of so-called “bath salts” drugs after the State’s education and enforcement action began.

For much more information on the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs’ initiative to stop the use of synthetic marijuana, so-called “bath salts,” and other designer drugs, view the Division’s website at www.NJConsumerAffairs.gov/designer.

 

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