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Area officials eye more laws on synthetic marijuana after total ban fails in Legislature

By Sarah Thomas
June 8, 2013 at 11 p.m.

East Texas municipalities are making plans to battle synthetic marijuana locally after state lawmakers failed to pass a bill that would ban all forms of the drug. Officials say the lack of support from Austin is making it difficult for local law enforcement and drug abuse programs to make a dent in what they're calling an epidemic.

"We've seen a lot of kids getting messed up on this stuff," said Gilmer Police Chief James Grunden.

He said a statewide ban would be most effective because it would make the law consistent throughout the state. But Grunden added that city officials would have to take matters into their own hands, as many East Texas towns did before the Legislature in 2011 finally outlawed the drug sold as incense or potpourri under the names K2, Spice, Fire & Ice and Genie.

Longview, Gladewater, White Oak, Daingerfield, Tyler, Marshall, Grand Saline, Kilgore, Carthage and Pittsburg all passed city ordinances against the drug before the state took action.

Despite the local laws and a statewide ban, manufacturers have simply repackaged the substances using different names and forms, making it difficult to stop.

Longview Mayor Jay Dean said he intends to expand the city's ban to include every form of synthetic marijuana.

"We're currently reviewing with our legal department what legal limitations we have with regard to banning all synthetic marijuana," he said in an email. "If we can legally ban all of it, I intend to bring that before City Council. I would hope that other cities and counties in our region would do the same."

Although adjusting city ordinances to combat the problem is a step in the right direction, Grunden said, it's not the most effective.

"I would encourage everybody to contact the Legislature to get them to do something," he said. "A city can ban it, but if you can go over to the next town and get it, you're just spinning your wheels, and you still have a problem."

<strong>A losing battle</strong>

Synthetic marijuana is considered by many experts to be among the most dangerous abused substances on the street.

"There's nothing law enforcement can do about these new forms," said Joyce Weiss, chief clinical officer with the East Texas Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse. "The makers of this stuff are way ahead of the government."

When convenience stores and head shops took the banned products off their shelves in 2011, many replaced them with the tweaked and re-branded versions that are being sold despite being labeled "Not for human consumption."

"There's a social understanding that these people are buying it for the wrong reasons," she said. "There should be a little moral thing inside their head."

The council is seeing firsthand how the use of synthetic marijuana is spreading across East Texas. Its assessment team is seeing an increase in the number of people seeking help for an addiction to the substance. Weiss said the team is seeing about 10 cases each week. Most users are white, in their late teens and early 20s.

"If it's not their drug of choice, they've been at least using it sporadically. But more and more, it is becoming their drug of choice," said Connie Caldwell, who oversees screening and assessment for the council.

The appeal of synthetic marijuana includes its legal status, marketing and branding and its quick and intense high, Caldwell said.

"With marijuana, you'll be safer, yet it's illegal and you'll go to jail. With K2, you'll skip jail, but you will die," she said.

Caldwell added its consequences are also fast and intense, including violent episodes, hallucinations, brain damage and cardiac arrest.

<strong>Banning Salvia</strong>

The 83rd Legislature did make headway banning Salvia divinorum with passage of House Bill 124, which is awaiting Gov. Rick Perry's signature.

Salvia is a psychoactive mint containing Salvinorin-A, which is considered to be perhaps the most potent, selective and naturally-occurring hallucinogen when it is smoked. The leafy green plant is said to rival the potency of the synthetic hallucinogens like LSD.

HB 124 added Salvia divinorum and its extracts to Penalty Group 3 of the Texas Controlled Substances Act, which includes Xanax, Valium and LSD.

But state Rep. David Simpson, R-Longview, voted no to HB 124, saying abusing Salvia and other natural substances is a matter of personal responsibility and should not be debated in Legislature.

"I do not condone the abuse of Salvia divinorum or marijuana, or for that matter alcohol or tobacco. However, like prohibition in the 20s, the drug war has been a tremendous failure. I support holding people accountable for harm they cause to others but not expanding the criminalization of the possession or use of plants," Simpson said Thursday in an email.

He also referenced the Bible in his decision to oppose the bill.

"It is interesting that Proverbs 23:21 lumps the glutton and the drunkard together in the same category. But God did not ban food or inebriating drink just because they can be abused," Simpson said.

Rather, he said he believes bans on such substances are an example of government overreach that take away personal responsibility.

"The proper role of government is not to prevent all irresponsibility; that is impossible," Simpson said. "Its main responsibility is to enact justice - to punish those who harm their neighbor."

Depending on the amount, people in possession of drugs listed in Penalty Group 3 could face from one to 99 years in prison and fines from $4,000 to $50,000.

But just like other synthetic marijuana laws that have traveled through the Legislature, banning Salvia took several attempts.

Bans were proposed in 2007 and 2009. Both lacked legislative action on the drug said to cause dramatic and sometimes frightening mind-states.

A user's reaction can vary from a subtle, just-off-baseline state to a full-blown psychedelic experience, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Simpson added that the Drug Enforcement Agency has not classified Salvia divinorum as a controlled substance.

"And I have not heard that salvia has been a problem in our district or really, for that matter, in the state," he said.



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