Almost as soon as synthetic marijuana started appearing at smoke shops and gas stations—promising a legal alternative to more conventional, and more obviously illegal, highs—lawmakers have been trying to ban it.
But even with a statewide ban in place for the last four years, local cops have struggled to shut down the sale of “spice” and “incense” because—as we reported last week—the ban is effectively unenforceable in court. Synthetics are also expensive to test, and manufacturers are constantly re-engineering the drugs to steer clear of new chemical bans.
Shoehorning synthetics into our existing anti-drug framework has been maddening for prosecutors, too. In Lubbock, the DA’s office has hand-delivered letters pleading businesses not to sell the drugs. In Alpine, local police backed by the Brewster County DA’s office raided the same smoke shop four times in two years without finding any substances that were illegal at the time of the raids.
Horror stories keep cropping up around the state, and especially in rural Texas, of “bad batches” of spice hospitalizing people who don’t know what it is they’re smoking, or how much they can safely smoke. Decades of marijuana scaremongering have inured most of us to overblown claims about the drug’s dangers. Though the dangers vary from pouch to pouch, early research suggests synthetic marijuana has serious risks, much more so than marijuana.
So lawmakers face the challenge of cracking down on a dangerous new drug at a time of waning support for punitive drug-war policies, when the mood is swinging more toward legalization. Longview Republican Rep. David Simpson is suggesting a different approach, one he says could protect people without giving the state another excuse to lock them up.
“I don’t like the course of violence that is so often pursued on this so-called war on drugs,” Simpson says. “I think the better way to handle it is let the people who’ve been harmed have recourse to justice.”
To that end, one of Simpson’s bills would create a civil penalty for selling or giving synthetic drugs to a minor. Another would make the sale and manufacture of synthetic drugs a violation of Texas’ Deceptive Trade Practices-Consumer Protection Act.
“On the flip side, I think there’s good uses for natural drugs such as marijuana,” Simpson says. “It’s really helping people in the district that I serve, but they’re having to go to Colorado because they’re felons if they bring it back.”
His bills would, in effect, give overdose victims recourse to sue their dealers, a novel anti-drug approach that’s only even possible because synthetics have proven so resistant to traditional criminal penalties.
“We’re hoping that the manufacturers say, ‘It’s better to take care of our clientele than to get sued by them,'” Simpson says. Today, someone buying a packet of spice can’t know much at all about what chemicals they’re about to inhale, or how their body will respond. Lighting up synthetic marijuana may seem like a familiar experience, Simpson says, but what’s actually happening to a person is less clear.
“They don’t realize this roller coaster, though it has a steel monorail, it’s connected to a rotten wooden structure that’s destined for derailment,” Simpson says. “Kids may expect to have some ‘ooh’ and ‘ahh,’ but they don’t expect the train on this fast woopty-doopty monorail to go off the tracks.”
In an op-ed published in the Longview News-Journal this week, Simpson presents another analogy:
Imagine having a beer with friends. You know your tolerance for alcohol will allow you to have one beer and drive home without impairment. Now imagine trying a “synthetic beer” and enjoying it. The next time, though, instead of being able to drive, you find yourself suffering from severe anxiety, nausea, an elevated heart rate, tremors, seizures, hallucinations or temporary blindness.
With no clear idea what’s in that foil pouch, Simpson says, and especially when the product is marketed as “potpourri” or “incense,” the sale is deceptive on its face. “It should be an honest transaction,” he says. “Most people know they’re not really getting potpourri, but they don’t know what they’re getting either.”
Another new bill, filed in the Senate, focuses on how spice packets are labeled. Lubbock Republican Sen. Charles Perry’s proposal creates a broad new legal definition of synthetic drugs, and requires sellers to include labels with the product’s weight and ingredients even if—as many synthetics are today—they’re branded “not for human consumption.”
Like Simpson’s proposals, Perry’s would target the people selling synthetic drugs, not the users.
One more proposal, filed Monday by Amarillo Republican Rep. Four Price, would let the commissioner of the Texas Health and Human Services Commission classify new synthetics as controlled substances on a temporary basis, until the Legislature reconvenes. His bill also provides some protection for consumers, who would be safe from prosecution for taking synthetics if they’d requested emergency medical help.
Simpson and Perry’s bills focus even more on the supply chain, and allow for enforcement in civil, not criminal, courts. Texas District and County Attorneys Association spokesman Shannon Edmonds says that’s an important distinction because the burden of proof is lower in civil cases, making it easier to prove a product meets Texas’ definition of a synthetic drug.
“The goal,” Edmonds explains, “is that you’re going after these businesses that are selling this stuff, and hitting them in the pocket book is the best way to stop them from putting deceptive products on the market.”