California outlaws possession of synthetic drug ‘spice’ amid overdoses on L.A.'s skid row

California outlaws possession of synthetic drug ‘spice’ amid overdoses on L.A.'s Skid Row

 (Patrick T. Fallon / For The Times)

(Patrick T. Fallon / For The Times)

Gov. Jerry Brown on Sunday signed legislation that outlaws the possession of the synthetic drug “spice” after law enforcement officials and paramedics tended to dozens of overdoses on Skid Row in Los Angeles.

Senate Bill 139, introduced by Sen. Cathleen Galgiani (D-Stockton) and sponsored by the California Police Chiefs Assn., adds a number of specified drugs and chemicals to the existing list of prohibited synthetic cannabinoids.

It is already a crime to sell those drugs. But the urgency measure, which was requested by the California Narcotics Officers Assn., would make a first offense of possession of specified synthetic cannabinoids or stimulants an infraction. A second or third offense could be a misdemeanor.

This law “is very important because young people believe that if a drug is not illegal, it is okay and that it is safe,” Galgiani said. “But underground chemists manufacture these drugs in warehouses and then market them to kids as being legal when in fact they are more dangerous.”

For law enforcement, the rise of synthetic drugs has been difficult to regulate, as sellers change their chemical combinations often.

U.S. drug companies first developed synthetic cannabinoids in the 1980s as they sought to find drugs to treat serious diseases, such as cancer and lupus. Although their researchers failed, illegal drug manufacturers then took the formula and marketed it across Europe as herbal incense before spice arrived in new forms in the U.S. in 2009.

Galgiani’s bill drew the strong support of law enforcement associations in Los Angeles, where officials have been scrambling to warn people about the drug, which can produce effects similar to those of marijuana but is a different plant material sprayed with a psychoactive chemical.

The California Police Chiefs Association said the legislation, which provides treatment and education options for anyone caught in possession of a synthetic drug or stimulant, would encourage defendants to take advantage of those programs.

“Getting people into treatment is literally lifesaving,” the association has said in a statement. “Without treatment intervention, persons using these drugs face a continued downward cycle.”

The measure was opposed by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Drug Policy Alliance.

Jolene Forman, a staff attorney with the Drug Policy Alliance, said similar laws across the country have failed to decrease the low rates of synthetic cannabinoid use, while they exacerbated “the health risks by pushing the risky behavior underground.”

“The drug war has been proven to be ineffective at resolving our nation’s drug problems,” Forman said. “Instead, it has wasted billions of public dollars and erected lifetime barriers to successful employment and education. Rather than learning from these failures, SB 139 maintains the status quo.”

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