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N.H. communities, state continue fight against synthetic pot

  • 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)

    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)
  • 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)

Epsom police Chief Wayne Preve sank into his office chair last Friday, a beleaguered look on his face. A week earlier, Gov. Maggie Hassan had declared a health emergency following a rash of drug overdoses in Manchester and Concord, and authorized state and local officials to quarantine the culprit: bubblegum-flavored “Smacked!”

This might have been good news for Preve, who says he’s struggled for nearly three years to rid his small community of synthetic cannabinoids, also known as synthetic marijuana or spice. But the only shop in town where the drug is sold doesn’t carry that brand, he said, leaving Preve still essentially powerless to stop its use.

“I get tons of calls all the time,” he said, referencing the drug. “ ‘My kids are addicted to it. My husband, my wife is addicted to it. Can you do anything?’

“And the problem is, it’s totally legal.”

Spice is sold in different formulas and marketed as incense and potpourri. But it’s often smoked or brewed into tea, officials say, and they warn that the health impacts from spice can be much more dangerous than marijuana because of unknown chemical ingredients. The long-term effects are still largely unknown.

Preve is tired of fielding calls from worried loved ones, of listening to residents in communities where the drug is no longer available complain about how it still is in Epsom. But mostly, Preve said, he’s just tired of not being able to do anything about it.

“It’s tough because you know what it’s doing to the people, and our hands are tied,” he said.

As larger cities and towns work to root out spice and other synthetic drugs, smaller communities like Preve’s – where shops still sell the drug, where police forces are smaller, where bans on synthetic pot have yet to be adopted – face obstacles.

“I have five, six guys including myself,” Preve said, when asked about undercover buys. “And everyone knows who we are.”

Spice first surfaced in Epsom two to three years ago. Today, Preve said, the police and fire departments respond regularly to calls of people who have become ill or dizzy or just extremely lethargic from smoking it.

Town officials have begun considering policy aids, including ordinances like those already in place in Keene, Tilton, Belmont and Franklin, which ban the drug from being sold or purchased. Selectman Hugh Curley III said his board is still in the exploratory phase.

“We want to learn: What is it? What can we do as a town? And how would we do it?” he said, adding that he in particular wants to know, “If we stop this.”

At the state level

New Hampshire is one of the few remaining states without an explicit ban on spice. Legislators have considered a statewide ban in the past, and a bill introduced last session was tabled in a study committee. The challenge, officials say, is crafting a bill that producers won’t circumvent by altering the drug’s chemical compound.

Hassan made her declaration Aug. 14, just days after more than three dozen people reported “serious medical reactions” to the drug and there were 20 hospital transports. Benjamin Chan, the state epidemiologist, said the number of emergency room visits has dropped considerably in the days since. There were a handful the following weekend, he said, and only two or three last week. No one has reportedly died from the drug.

Chan said the state Department of Health and Human Services has been working closely with law enforcement to educate store owners and people in general about the dangers of synthetic cannabinoids, which can include passing out, hallucinations and cardiovascular distress.

“The focus right now is mainly educating the public,” he said.

Senior Assistant Attorney General Jane Young said yesterday that, despite no explicit ban, her office is looking at “all facets of the law to address this epidemic.”

Other communities

In Franklin, police Chief David Goldstein said the city’s ban, which took effect in 2011, has been mostly positive – but not perfect. He said the ordinance does not preclude some chemical alterations made in the years since, making it possible for the drug to pop up legally in town.

Goldstein sits on the legislative committee of the New Hampshire Association of Chiefs of Police. He said he’s hopeful that the governor’s recent action, which received national press, has called enough attention to the issue to compel legislators to support a ban.

“I think with all of this publicity and recognition we have a much better chance,” he said.

Belmont police Chief Mark Lewandoski said the city’s ban, which took effect in June, appears to be working so far. But he said the only store where the drug had been available agreed to pull it from the shelves before the ordinance, at least in part due to reported burglaries.

Lewandoski said he would advise any other community considering a ban to first reach out to merchants and to continue to educate them on the dangers of the drug.

“The last thing you want to do is take an enforcement action,” he said. “If you can do it with compliance and understanding it’s much better, because then it’s a community action.”

Preve said he has spoken several times with the owner of the Epsom shop where the drug is sold, called Smoke N Discount, but has been unable to persuade him to remove the drug from his shelves. The owner did not return requests for comment.

Preve said he is working with state and local officials to find a solution. He said he thinks the only real solution will come at a state level.

“If Epsom gets an ordinance, nothing’s saying that (the owner) can’t go a half-mile down the road and be in Chichester,” he said. “And now Chichester has to deal with it.”

(Jeremy Blackman can be reached at 369-3319 or jblackman@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @JBlackmanCM.)

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