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Feds' move to stop spice may boost Utah effort

Published November 25, 2010 1:20 pm

Spice • Action taken by DEA may force Utah legislators to revamp bill.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2010, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Utah has been waging a battle against the synthetic marijuana known as spice through a patchwork of local laws, but the federal government fired its own shot Wednesday, announcing it will control several of the chemicals used to make the pot substitute.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration's move to temporarily place five chemicals into the Controlled Substances Act within 30 days and keep them there for at least a year likely would make a portion of the spice products sold in Utah and other states illegal.

Most of the five chemicals are synthetic cannabinoids with marijuana-like properties that are typically sprayed on herbs and legally sold as incense.

"Since 2009, the DEA has received an increasing number of reports from poison centers, hospitals and law enforcement regarding these products," the DEA wrote in announcing the action. "Over the past year, smokable herbal blends marketed as being legal and providing a marijuana-like high have become increasingly popular, particularly among teens and young adults."

Spice is sold under several names, including K2, Blaze and the Wacky Weed and is smoked by some people as a recreational drug. The products are usually labeled as not for human consumption.

One product found frequently in Utah, Black Mamba, has Utah phone numbers listed as contacts to buy it on the company's website. One of the contacts, listed only as Brett, answered a few questions on the phone but didn't reveal his last name or the location of his business.

"Many people in Utah are going to lose their jobs," said Brett, talking about the DEA action and its effect on his industry. "Chasing down these chemicals just buys the government time. A temporary ban will only speed up research and development for new products."

Governmental entities across Utah, from health departments to cities, have already outlawed the possession, distribution and production of spice products. Earlier this month, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, asked the DEA to take action in controlling spice products.

"The DEA's decision to criminalize the possession and sale of these drugs and the chemicals they contain is the right prescription to help law enforcement professionals head off this fast-growing epidemic," Hatch said.

The DEA says that the American Association of Poison Control Centers received more than 1,500 calls from 48 states, including Utah, as of September 27 that were related to products spiked with synthetic cannabinoids.

Spice was studied during the past year by a statewide panel of health experts convened by lawmakers. David Sundwall, the director of the Utah Department of Health, served as chairman of the Controlled Substances Advisory Committee. Earlier this fall, the committee recommended to lawmakers that Utah take control of spice.

Sundwall applauded the DEA's action.

"It's better to have some uniformity in the way we regulate these designer drugs," he said.

The five chemicals targeted by the DEA are identified as JWH-018, JWH-073, JWH-200, CP-47,497 and cannabicyclohexanol.

The emergency action by the federal agency may force Utah lawmakers to revamp legislation that came out of the Sundwall committee aimed at banning spice products statewide.

Rep. Gage Froerer's bill to outlaw 15 chemicals used in spice, including the five named by the DEA, was awaiting action once the Utah Legislature convenes its 2011 session.

Froerer, a Huntsville Republican, believes it's possible the lawmakers will also put the five chemicals on a state list of tightly controlled substances. But other portions of the bill, including penalties and additional chemicals found in spice products, will probably be reconsidered.

dweist@sltrib.com