Drug war in D.C. takes aim at synthetic marijuana

Even as some states move to lessen penalties or decriminalize the possession of marijuana, a D.C. Council committee voted Thursday to strengthen city laws against synthetic forms of the drug.

Under a comprehensive crime bill approved by the Judiciary Committee, members voted to classify substitute forms of marijuana such as “KZ” and “Spice” as Schedule 1 narcotics, which are subject to more stringent criminal penalties. The committee also reclassified Gamma-hydroxybutryric acid – commonly known as GHB or the “date-rape drug” – and various chemicals used to produced cathinones, known as bath salts, as Schedule 1 drugs.

Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D), who chairs the Judiciary Committee, said the changes conform District law with federal drug statues and fight crime. Bath salts, for example, have been linked to several high-profile crimes across the country in which users become volatile or violent.

But the council efforts to crack down on synthetic marijuana come amid a broader nationwide debate about whether drug laws should be reformed.

Voters in Colorado and Washington voted this month to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana. In the District, some activists and elected officials have also raised concerns that city drug laws are resulting in too many younger residents being burdened with criminal records that make it difficult for them to obtain future employment.

In an interview, Mendelson said harsher local penalties were needed for synthetic marijuana because, he claimed, the substances are dangerous. Mendelson said synthetic marijuana poses greater health risks than the naturally grown form of the drug.

“With regards to this legislation, there is a greater concern because there is less assurance what the ingredients are with synthetic drugs than the natural products,” Mendelson said. “With synthetic, there can be poisons in there. … It’s even a greater threat.”

When asked if he worries about potentially expanding the numbers of people subject to drug arrests, Mendelson said he’s optimistic his bill will instead “get those products off the market.”

“You have to understand, synthetic marijuana is not the same as real marijuana,” Mendelson said. “A person can kill themselves on it. … We have seen a decline in a lot of drugs. I am hopeful adding this to the list of controlled substances, we will contribute to its reduction.”

As for the broader national debate about decriminalizing marijuana, Mendelson said “there is a good argument for decriminalizing a drug that is widely used and that results in a lot of arrest records and not having an effect on violent crime.”

But Mendelson immediately added, “But I’m not prepared to go there.”

Mendelson said he worries that any attempt to decriminalize marijuana in the District would be quickly overturned by Congress. “I don’t think this is the time for the District to be discussing that.”

The full council is expected to take an initial vote on Mendelson’s crime bill next week.

In addition to classifying synthetic marijuana, GHB and cathinones as schedule 1 drugs, the bill classifies the aesthetic Fospropofol as a Schedule 4 narcotic. Mendelson said the change was needed to clarify that the drug — linked to death of pop star Michael Jackson – should not be available for use without stringent legal oversight over users and physicians.

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