Just more than two months after “Chase’s Law” was adopted by state legislators banning all forms of synthetic marijuana, state law enforcement officials are again setting their sites on curbing the distribution of the drug.
Earlier this week, the Georgia State Board of Pharmacy, per the request of Gov. Nathan Deal, adopted an emergency rule classifying newly discovered compounds of synthetic cannabinoids as Schedule I substances.
The rule provides law enforcement the authority to seize the new products but not the ability to prosecute for criminal penalties.
According to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, use of the drug commonly referred to as “spice” has been widespread even after Senate Bill 370, or Chase’s Law, was passed in March.
“After that law went into effect on March 27 upon the signature of the governor, the companies or manufacturers (of synthetic marijuana) came back with a completely new product,” said John Bankhead, spokesman for the GBI.
Bankhead said the bureau saw a dramatic drop in cases once the law was passed. But manufacturers soon started making products that were technically legal by changing the drug’s molecular structure.
But changing the structure, medical professionals say, can have dramatic consequences.
“Once you start manipulating a chemical structure, the side effect profile can change dramatically and that’s what we’re worried about,” said Dr. Gaylord Lopez, director of the Georgia Poison Center. “It’s really dangerous.”
The newness of the drug leaves a lot of questions as to the potential dangers, but Lopez notes the drugs can cause elevated heart rate and blood pressure, irregular heart rhythms, seizures, tremors, vomiting and possible severe central nervous system complications.
The newest products could be worse, he said.
“We’re already seeing a number of bad things happen, so who knows what this next round will bring?” Lopez said. “In the wrong person, you could be looking at really horrible consequences.”
In 2010, the poison center received about 70 calls in reference to synthetic marijuana health effects. In 2011, that number jumped to 350.
Through May of this year, the center has reported 107 calls.
“We were hoping that maybe the legislation would make a much bigger dent, but it hasn’t,” Lopez said.
Lt. Scott Ware of the Hall County Multiple Agency Narcotics Squad said the majority of the stores that sell the product in Hall County have remained compliant with the new laws. His department is working with the district attorney’s office to keep up with the new products.
“The issue of synthetic cannabinoids is of active, current concern of all of the law enforcement agencies in Hall County,” District Attorney Lee Darragh said. “It’s a big issue no matter where they show up, because so little is yet known about their adverse effect on users. The public can expect aggressive enforcement of the law in regard to all illegal substances, including the synthetics.”
Some agencies have already started the crackdown.
On Wednesday, the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office confiscated more than 1,900 bags of synthetic marijuana with an estimated value of $28,000 from five businesses.
Forsyth deputies seized more than 1,000 bags worth an estimated $14,185 at one location: King John Smoke Shop at Keith Bridge and Browns Bridge roads. The new classification as Schedule I substances, Bankhead said, allows law enforcement to take a proactive stance against manufacturers of the drug.
“This is definitely proactive,” he said. “This is a way to get it off the shelves proactively instead of waiting for the legislature to come back into session in January and make it a crime, which they will do.”
Bankhead said the bureau has seen cases of violence and death as a result of the drug, including the drowning of Chase Burnett, for whom the law is named.
Burnett, a 16-year-old from Fayette County, drowned in a hot tub after smoking the drug. And his death may not be the only one attributed to the drug.
Although the case is still pending, there is a possibility of the first death “directly connected to (the drug),” according to Bankhead. The GBI is waiting on the toxicology report to determine that.
“You may be looking at something that has a whole new addiction profile that rivals that of cocaine, heroine and the other stronger drugs,” Lopez said. “You don’t know what’s happening.”
Officials admit it’s likely manufacturers will come up with new structures to skirt the laws and rules currently in place, but state law enforcement vows to fight back.
“It could be (a never ending battle), but we’re going to continue,” Bankhead said. “If they come up with a new formula, we’ll go back to the pharmacy board and have them schedule that.”