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Ordinances in Belmont, Tilton, Franklin hint at danger of synthetic drug spice

  • ADVANCE FOR SUNDAY OCT. 2 - In this Sept. 21, 2011 photo, Incense on display for sale at the the Last Place On Earth, in Duluth, Minn.  The face of synthetic drugs in Minnesota belongs to a man who looks like an aging rocker, says he talks too much and describes his struggle to do what's right as a battle between his inner Yoda and Darth Vader. (AP Photo/Paul M. Walsh)

    ADVANCE FOR SUNDAY OCT. 2 - In this Sept. 21, 2011 photo, Incense on display for sale at the the Last Place On Earth, in Duluth, Minn. The face of synthetic drugs in Minnesota belongs to a man who looks like an aging rocker, says he talks too much and describes his struggle to do what's right as a battle between his inner Yoda and Darth Vader. (AP Photo/Paul M. Walsh)

  • This  Feb. 15, 2010, photo shows a package of K2 which contains herbs and spices sprayed with a synthetic compound chemically similar to THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana. State lawmakers in Missouri and Kansas have introduced bills which would create penalties for K2 possession similar to those for marijuana.(AP Photo/Kelley McCall)

    This Feb. 15, 2010, photo shows a package of K2 which contains herbs and spices sprayed with a synthetic compound chemically similar to THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana. State lawmakers in Missouri and Kansas have introduced bills which would create penalties for K2 possession similar to those for marijuana.(AP Photo/Kelley McCall)

  • ADVANCE FOR SUNDAY OCT. 2 - In this Sept. 21, 2011 photo, Incense on display for sale at the the Last Place On Earth, in Duluth, Minn.  The face of synthetic drugs in Minnesota belongs to a man who looks like an aging rocker, says he talks too much and describes his struggle to do what's right as a battle between his inner Yoda and Darth Vader. (AP Photo/Paul M. Walsh)
  • This  Feb. 15, 2010, photo shows a package of K2 which contains herbs and spices sprayed with a synthetic compound chemically similar to THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana. State lawmakers in Missouri and Kansas have introduced bills which would create penalties for K2 possession similar to those for marijuana.(AP Photo/Kelley McCall)

Belmont is the latest New Hampshire community to ban synthetic marijuana, as local and state officials struggle to keep pace with the rapidly evolving substance.

Belmont selectmen this week banned the possession, sale and purchase of “spice,” joining Tilton and Franklin in an effort to create a united front to help keep the drug out of the community. Popularized by brands such as “K2,” synthetic marijuana is a mixture of herbs and spices that are sprayed with chemicals to give the same effect as a marijuana high, according to the Office of National Drug Control Policy. The high can be more powerful, causing paranoia, panic attacks, hallucination, numbness, vomiting and seizures.

But for the most part, it’s been legal in New Hampshire.

Despite the 2012 federal Synthetic Drug Abuse Prevention Act, which put 26 kinds of synthetic marijuana on the list of controlled substances, manufacturers can slightly alter the chemical makeup of the product to include ingredients that are still legal. This makes it difficult for the police to enforce the Drug Enforcement Agency’s ban as the products continue to show up in convenience stores, gas stations and smoke shops. Packages are labeled “not for human consumption” to mask their intended purpose and to avoid Food and Drug Administration regulatory oversight. The town ordinances will give local police departments some power to control the spread of the drugs, officials said.

“The more towns that take a proactive approach and join us, the more it will help. You’re not going to stop a problem like this unless you have a unified front,” Belmont police Chief Mark Lewandowski said. Lewandowski presented the ordinance to the selectmen after the police responded to more incidents potentially involving spice.

“It was being sold locally, and then it start showing up with young adults and teens using it,” he said.

Belmont’s ordinance, which mirrors existing ones in Keene and Franklin, carries with it a $500 fine for a first offense. The Belmont Village Store, the only store that sold spice, voluntarily pulled the product before the ordinance went into effect, Lewandowski said. At $15 to $20 a package, they can make an attractive product for shop owners, he said.

“Economically, especially in a bad economy, it’s a good decision until you find out what it’s doing to your community,” he said. “Then you have to make a conscious decision to do the right thing or to do what makes sense as a business decision. Our guy in town made the right choice.”

The village store was burglarized twice for the synthetic marijuana before they stopped selling it, he said.

The Concord police don’t keep track of how many shops sell spice, said Lt. Timothy O’Malley. While there are no existing ordinances for the drugs, O’Malley said the department would consider one. In the last two weeks, two people cited for trespassing admitted being high on spice, he said. “That was a rare case. They don’t often admit to smoking it, and we have no way of really confirming it,” he said. “It is something we are seeing.”

Jimmy’s Smoke Shop on Loudon Road in Concord sells cigars, tobacco, cigarettes and glassware, but it doesn’t sell spice, manager Tom Rossi said. “I have a lot of people who come in and ask for it,” he said. “That synthetic junk, I’m not a big fan of it, though it would be good for business. When people come in and I say, ‘I don’t have it,’ they always say, ‘Why not?’ ”

Customers often ask where they can find spice, but Rossi said he wouldn’t sell it, for moral reasons. “If anything ever happened, why the hell would I want that in here,” he said.

In 2011, a suspicious event involving a minor prompted Franklin officials to draft one of the state’s first bans of the sale, purchase, distribution and possession of spice. The ordinance includes a penalty of up to $1,000 per day of violation.

“I think we see these substances as dangerous to public health, particularly to young people. We wanted to reduce the availability and access to these substances,” Franklin Mayor Ken Merrifield said. “That was our hope, to make the environment a little bit cleaner.”

Town ordinances are a valuable tool, but a statewide plan is likely more effective in prevention, said Valerie Morgan, administrator for the Prevention Services Unit at the state Bureau of Alcohol and Drug Services.

“It’s an ongoing dilemma,” she said. “As a whole the state needs to do something. To do it community by community is difficult when all people have to do is cross over to the next community.”

Legislators this session introduced several bills to ban or restrict their sale statewide. Only one, a Senate bill to establish a committee to study regulation and control of synthetic drugs, passed both chambers. That bill is awaiting action by the governor.

“It seems like every legislative season something comes up, whether it’s bath salts or synthetic marijuana. All these sort of synthetically developed compounds, they are always changing,” Morgan said.

The ordinances don’t solve every problem, but they represent progress, Lewandowski said. “I can’t prevent it from being sold in any other community that allows it, but by keeping it out of Belmont it will force people to go to other places, and it will also stop people from other places coming here,” he said.

(Iain Wilson can be reached at 369-3313 or iwilson@cmonitor.com.)

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