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Editorial: State must move against synthetic pot

Last week, Belmont became the latest New Hampshire community to ban synthetic marijuana, which is known by names such as spice and K2.

Belmont should be applauded for a decision that will undoubtedly make the community, especially its teenagers, a little safer. Now it’s time for New Hampshire lawmakers to draft legislation that will move beyond federal law and make such local ordinances unnecessary.

In 2012, President Obama signed into law the Synthetic Drug Abuse Prevention Act, which prohibits the sale of 26 kinds of synthetic marijuana. But there’s a loophole, and it’s a big one. All manufacturers of synthetic cannabinoids have to do to skirt the law is slightly change the chemical makeup of the banned substances. The police are then left powerless to enforce the intent of the federal ban.

That is why states and individual communities are drafting their own laws banning the dangerous, ingredient-shifting drugs.

Spice, which is sold under many names, is a mixture of plant material and chemical additives. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the drug acts on the same cell receptors as THC, which is the primary psychoactive component of marijuana. But the synthetic nature of spice makes its effect on the human brain much more unpredictable than marijuana.

In recent years, the dangers have become clear.

A 2010 study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration found that 11,406 people in the United States visited emergency rooms after ingesting or inhaling synthetic marijuana. Seventy-five percent of them were between the ages of 12 and 29. Last year, three deaths in Colorado were blamed on fake marijuana. And Emily Bauer, a Texas teenager who was left brain damaged and paralyzed after smoking synthetic marijuana in 2012, has become the national face of the drugs’ dangers.

The challenge for New Hampshire lawmakers is to draft a bill that closes loopholes for manufacturers. A good place to look toward for guidance is Virginia.

A law passed in April authorizes Virginia’s Board of Pharmacy to flag any substance that “has a chemical structure substantially similar to that of a controlled substance . . . and that has or is intended to have the same or a greater stimulant, depressant or hallucinogenic effect on the central nervous system.” The Board of Pharmacy can then use an expedited regulatory process to add the chemical compounds to the state’s list of controlled substances. The ban on these newly identified substances would be removed after 18 months unless lawmakers added them to the list of controlled substances.

The strength of Virginia’s law is that it gives the state power to aggressively protect its citizens from manufacturers who value profit over public health.

As long as there have been teenagers, there have been teenagers looking for creative ways to get high. New Hampshire won’t eliminate that problem by banning synthetic marijuana, but the state has a responsibility to seize opportunities to protect its citizens from harm.

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