Weed­ing out syn­thetic drugs

A new D.C. law gives po­lice the means to com­bat dan­ger­ous sub­stances.

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION -

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.

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