Although the DEA's bid to ban synthetic cannabinoids at the federal level has been stymied, at least temporarily, bills to ban it at the state level are moving through legislatures in at least a half-dozen states and more will probably follow this year. They are already banned in a dozen other states. But retailers' representatives say that "fake pot" is a multi-billion dollar a year industry that should be regulated, not prohibited.
While advocates of banning the synthetic cannabinoids describe them as harmful and dangerous, there is little evidence they are addictive or especially toxic. There are no known overdose fatalities from Spice, although at least one suicide has been linked by grieving parents to recent use. Other reported adverse effects of synthetic cannabinoids include panic attacks, anxiety, agitation, rapid heartbeat, vomiting, hallucinations, tremors, and seizures.
The American Association of Poison Control Centers reported last week that it had received more than 2,800 calls about Spice last year and another 217 through January 18. The calls were "causing increased concern among doctors and clinicians," the group said.
"These products present a health risk that is not worth it for consumers," said Missouri Poison Center Medical Director Anthony J. Scalzo, MD, who first noticed increased calls about these products to his center last fall. "The products are meant to create a similar reaction to marijuana, but in fact, patients often report the opposite -- a fast, racing heartbeat, elevated blood pressure and nausea."
But representatives of retailers say the concerns are overblown. They point to a relatively low number of reported adverse events, a lack of evidence of life-threatening side effects, and fending off Puritanism as reasons to regulate instead of prohibit synthetic cannabinoids.
"My estimate is that this industry is worth $2 to $3 billion at the retail level, so we are talking about up to 100 million $30 doses," said Dan Francis of the Retail Compliance Association, the group representing retailers that forced the DEA to back away, at least for now, from its emergency ban on synthetic cannabinoids. "If we're talking about 3,000 reports to poison control centers, it would seem that the incidence of problems is extremely low."
Francis also reacted to some of the hyperbolic rhetoric surrounding the danger of synthetic cannabinoids and the need for emergency action. "The typical side effects that are being reported are anxiety, agitation and nervousness," he said. "There are no reports of any side effects lasting more than a few hours."
"These substances are very widely used and they've been around for awhile. They're sold in head shops across America and a large number of gas stations, and there have been a few cases where people have freaked out and gone to the hospital, but that happens with marijuana, too," said Dustin Bayer of the Small Business Alliance, a group representing entrepreneurs challenging the federal ban effort. "It's not physical problems, but more like anxiety attacks."
The complaints of the retailers' representatives notwithstanding, bills to ban the synthetics are moving in the following states:
In Arizona, HB 2167, an emergency measure adding synthetic cannabinoids to the state's list of dangerous drugs and providing the same penalties as those for marijuana, passed the passed the House Judiciary and the House Rules committee last week on unanimous votes. It now heads to the House Floor.
In Indiana, SB 57, which outlaws synthetic cannabinoids and punishes them like marijuana, passed the Senate on a 47-0 vote last Friday. Two days earlier, the House Criminal Codes Committee approved its version of the bill. It now awaits a House floor vote.
In Minnesota, HF 57, which make sale of fake pot a gross misdemeanor punishable by a year in jail and possession a misdemeanor punishable by 90 days in jail, passed the House Public Safety Committee Monday and has been referred to the house Judiciary Policy Committee.
In Utah, HB 23, which would add synthetic cannabinoids to the state's controlled substances list, passed the House Health and Human Services Committee and is headed for the House Floor. A less restrictive bill that would ban their sale to people under age 19, HB 200, passed the House Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee, but its sponsor said he would withdraw it if the more draconian bill passed.
In Virginia, SB 748, which add a new category of controlled substances to include synthetic cannabinoids, was passed by the Senate Committee on Courts and Justice Tuesday. The bill would make punishments similar to those for marijuana.
In West Virginia, SB 63, which would ban fake pot in the Mountaineer State, passed the Senate Health and Human Services Committee Tuesday, but only after being amended. The original version of the bill also included a ban on salvia divinorum, but that was dropped in the version approved by the committee.
Indiana state Sen. Ron Alting (R-Lafayette), who sponsored the Indiana ban bill, provided a typical rationale in an interview with the South Bend Tribune. "This is something that is just a real, real bad substance," he said, adding that "the hallucinations produced by synthetic cannabinoids are 10 times stronger than those from marijuana."
Alting said doctors and police had told him of people falling into comas, being temporarily paralyzed, or trying to kill themselves after using fake pot. And he said teenagers in his home district convinced him of the need for a ban when he asked them why anyone would smoke synthetic cannabindoids.
"They looked at me and said, 'Because it's legal,'" he said."Let's put an end to that comeback from young people and anyone else using this."
"Why do they want to make criminals out of store clerks?" asked an exasperated Francis. "It's an insane endeavor to enforce felony-quality laws on people who are just struggling to get by. Why don't they consider regulation instead? There's a myriad of those chemicals out there -- we could have good manufacturing regulations, batch and lot numbers, restricting it to people over 21. Those are the kinds of things we're working on right now."
"I would ask those legislators what danger does this pose?" said Bayer. "There is no shown danger. The people who want to ban it want to ban it for moral reasons, the same way they want to ban marijuana. It's not a scientific issue or an issue of danger, it's really more of a moral issue."