Weeding out synthetic drugs
A new D.C. law gives police the means to combat dangerous substances.
NEARLY A dozen people were rushed to the hospital after a mass drug overdose at a D.C. homeless shelter last month. A woman was accused of abandoning a 10-month-old baby on a busy D.C. street. A seemingly crazed 18-year-old allegedly stabbed to death a man on a Metro train July 4. Authorities say the common denominator in these incidents was the use of synthetic drugs. Emergency legislation to deal with the rising use of the dangerous substances comes none too soon.
Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) on Friday signed into law a measure that aims to combat the use of these drugs by cracking down on the businesses that trade in them. The drugs — smokable herbal products coated with chemicals that mimic the active ingredient in marijuana — are marketed under names such as Scooby Snax or K2 and can be found at liquor and convenience stores and gas stations. Popular with young people, their appeal has spread to vulnerable populations such as the homeless, and abuse is fast becoming a national problem.
Those who design the drugs change the chemical composition to confound Drug Enforcement Administration and local regulations even as governments try modifying their standards to keep up. The District’s law, which goes into effect immediately, follows the model used by the city in going after sellers of stolen electronic goods and in policing clubs with liquor licenses.
Police will now have the authority to shut down a store that sells banned products for up to 96 hours for a first offense, with a $10,000 fine, and shut down repeat offenders for up to 30 days with a $20,000 fine while the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs moves to permanently revoke the business’s license. The law avoids the need for testing of chemical compositions by using an administrative, not criminal, process and employing the department’s definitions of synthetic drugs. Included are products not suitable for the use they are marketed for (powders marketed as glass cleaners) or with atypical labeling (“100 percent legal”) or with prices out of line for the product’s use.
The law is being accompanied by other changes. Health department officials are stepping up data collection from hospitals and police are replacing vice squads with specialized units more agile in investigating the new modes of drug distribution, both online and on the ground. Memories of the crack cocaine violence of the 1990s have not faded in Washington; city officials are right to be proactive in their approach.