Legislators Trying to Ban Synthetic Drugs Face Uphill Battle
Photo Credit: DEA
FAIRBANKS — Synthetic drugs “potpourri” and “bath salts” labeled with the words “not for human consumption” remain in the same legal limbo they were in several years ago when state and federal governments tried to ban them.
They’re still for sale at local retail shops and likely will remain quasi-legal for the foreseeable future in Alaska, where legislators who have tried to ban the drugs have resigned themselves to periodically banning specific chemicals used to make synthetic drugs, leading manufacturers to develop new — and again legal — variations of the products. Federal officials have a similar dilemma.
Users describe products sold as bath salts — which can be smoked, snorted or injected — as similar to the rush from stimulants such as cocaine or methamphetamine. Potpourri, also known as spice or labeled as incense, generally is described by users as a marijuana-like experience when smoked.
Critics say the products can be more dangerous than the drugs users say they simulate. They also can appeal to young people because they are inexpensive and look exciting or have exotic with names such as Bliss, AK-47, YOLO (an acronym for “you only live once”) or Twilight.
“Spice is a synthetic drug that is marketed for human consumption and is purported to have effects similar to that of marijuana. However, based on (my) training and experience as well as ... conversations with users of spice, (I have) learned that the effects are quite different than that of marijuana,” Fairbanks police officer Avery Thompson wrote in an informational note about spice this fall in a criminal complaint for a domestic violence case. “Users of spice oftentimes report memory loss, hallucinations and erratic behavior.”
Although it’s not illegal to own potpourri or bath salts, their use as drugs comes up in a handful of domestic violence and driving under the influence investigations each month in the Fairbanks area. The federal Drug Enforcement Administration has been receiving increased reports related to these drugs since 2009 and in Alaska, especially in the past two years, according to spokeswoman Jodi Underwood in Seattle.
Manufacturers and retailers of synthetic drugs say users should be responsible for their actions if they abuse these products. After all, they say, bath salts and potpourris clearly are marked with labels stating not to use them as drugs, much like the warning on household products commonly used as drugs, such as aerosol cans.
At the Cushman Street Mr. Rock and Roll, one of several local stores that sell potpourri and bath salts in Fairbanks, employees maintain a binder of lab tests to show that all of their products comply with the law and don’t contain any banned substances. The store stocks more than a dozen bath salts and potpourris, including a locally produced potpourri brand called C&J, behind the counter in an adults-only room.
The store is filled with pipes and images of marijuana leaves and products made from hemp fiber, but store customers aren’t supposed to talk about smoking spice to get high, floor manager Brittany Haas said. In fact, it’s frowned upon to call it spice — the slangier street word — instead of potpourri or to call different varieties “flavors” instead of “fragrances.”