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Wasilla council fails to ban sale of synthetic drugs

Zaz Hollander
A new Anchorage ordinance cracks down on designer drugs called Spice that are packaged as potpourri or incense. These packages were confiscated either by police, or when a person went to the sleep off center. Bill Roth

WASILLA -- An effort to ban the use, possession and sale of synthetic drugs in Wasilla failed in a city council vote Monday night.

Wasilla's anti-synthetic drugs measure was based on one passed unanimously last month by the Anchorage Assembly. Anchorage police say they're seeing more product from the Valley on city streets.

Authorities say the relatively cheap, readily available substances like Spice that mimic the effects of illegal drugs are unsafe because their chemical makeup is a mystery. They can trigger chaotic emotional and health problems including aggressive behavior, seizures, and collapse.

The substances tend to fall outside the reach of authorities because manufacturers shift recipes to stay ahead of changing drug laws.

Six stores in Wasilla sell products police consider synthetic drugs, city officials say. No stores in Palmer sell them, according to Palmer police Commander Lance Ketterling.

Wasilla's council actually voted 3-2 in favor of the law. But it takes four votes to pass legislation, according to the city clerk's office.

Members Colleen Sullivan-Leonard, David Wilson and Gretchen O'Barr voted for the law. Clark Buswell and Brandon Wall voted against it.

A "shocked" council member Leone Harris couldn't make the meeting, she said Tuesday.

Harris would have voted in favor of the anti-synthetic drug measure. The council has six members.

"Quite frankly, I am floored that it didn't pass," she said. "There's nothing about it I don't like. I like the fact that we were going to do something to protect our young people who don't know any better."

Buswell and Wall in separate interviews Tuesday said they couldn't support the ordinance because it was poorly worded and too broad though they said they could be open to more narrowly focused versions.

Buswell also said, however, that Wasilla's footprint only extends so far and the Mat-Su Borough lacks the authority to enact drug laws outside the city so the ordinance wouldn't make much difference.

"Some of these people are starting to realize they have to take responsibility for their own actions," he said. "If they go smoking this junk, they're gonna die. We start passing new laws to do what? They're going to break them anyway."

Wall, a father of four children who said he understood concerns about the drugs, said he couldn't back the ordinance because gave police too much discretion without enough legal definition. He noted that the ordinance among other things would have targeted labels promising "relaxation."

"It was a little bit ironic because right before this came up we had a presentation from a small business group that was talking about the big trends," he said. "One of them was relaxation drinks."

Mayor Verne Rupright and Wasilla Police Chief Gene Belden proposed the measure.

"We were just making a statement that we don't approve," a disappointed Rupright said Tuesday. "It's not a criminal code. It's a code violation with fines saying possession, use or sale we don't approve."

Synthetic drugs were involved in the near-death experience of a 15-year-old girl who collapsed on Main Street and had to be resuscitated two summers ago, according to Rupright.

Spice was blamed in a criminal case involving a 22-year-old Houston man who killed a puppy by throwing it through a window last year.

Lisa Behrens, a Mat-Su Borough medic, said responders have received dozens of calls from patients in their late teens to early 30s suffering seizures and other health problems related to synthetic drugs. The stuff wreaks havoc with the central nervous system. Patients end up in the ER.

"That has been like a mini-epidemic in the Valley," Behrens said. "Our big concern used to be methamphetamine and then it was almost like switch turned on and the words 'bath salts' and 'Spice' and 'synthetic drugs' just became something we had to rapidly get ourselves an education on."

She said users need to understand the drugs are more like "chemistry exercises" that can prove poisonous.

Instead of banning specific chemicals, Wasilla's proposed ordinance would have banned any "illicit synthetic drug" including Spice, bath salts and drugs without labels listing ingredients and the name of the manufacturer.

It would have banned substances marked "not for human consumption" when they are intended for that purpose or marketed as producing a "'high,' euphoria, relaxation, mood enhancement" or other effects on the body.

It listed more than 100 monikers for Spice, from Bloody Eyes and Black Out to Funky Monkey 20X, Crippler, K2 and Dead Man Walking.

Violators would have faced a $300 fine.

The ordinance as amended Monday night would have given merchants until May 1 to clear their shelves of banned substances, the mayor said.

That was at the request of Douglas Rudd, who owns Wild Zone smoke shop on Yenlo Street just off the Parks Highway.

The store does about 10 percent of its business in items lumped into the "synthetic drug" category but only some of them could be labelled Spice, Rudd said Tuesday. He said he hasn't sold bath salts - a powdery material said to mirror amphetamines - for two years. He would remove anything deemed illegal, he said.

But the store carries an herbal product called "Kratom" that Rudd thinks would remain legal. It's clearly labelled, recommends users research on its effects and declares its one ingredient, Mitragyna speciosa.

Rudd said he supports the intent of the city's proposed ban but not necessarily its execution and how broadly it would be applied -- to stores selling plant food without ingredients or a retailer of soft drinks promising relaxation?

What about the vials of flavored nicotine he sells for electronic cigarettes that are too small for labels?

Rudd said he hopes the city can come up with an ordinance similar to a more tightly worded anti-synthetic drug bill making its way through the state Legislature this session, Senate Bill 173.

He spoke at the council meeting Monday because he wants to work with the city, Rudd said. "I'd rather be up front and say, 'Hey, what can I sell?'"

Reach Zaz Hollander at zhollander@adn.com or 257-4317.


By ZAZ HOLLANDER
zhollander@adn.com