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Wasilla City Council tries again on anti-Spice law

"No More Nice Guy" brand of Spice. Loren Holmes photo

The Wasilla City Council voted Monday night to reintroduce an anti-synthetic drug ordinance that failed to pass in February. Public comment, and a possible vote on the ordinance has been set for the Council's next meeting on April 14. The proposed law mimics one passed by the Anchorage Assembly in January. A similar law, pending in both the Alaska State House and Senate, could take the approach to banning the semi-legal drug statewide.

Spice, sometimes billed as a synthetic and legal form of marijuana, is an often unknown mix of chemicals, sprayed on plant material and sold in small packages as potpourri or incense. The packages often have cartoonish images on them and carry sinister-sounding names like "Dead Man," "Red Eye" and "No More Mr. Nice Guy." It is that last one that a Wasilla family blames for the death of 18-year-old Kurtis Hildreth, who was found dead in November after smoking the drug in his bedroom. While billed as a legal form of marijuana, the effects of the ever-changing chemical cocktail that makes up the hundreds of variations of Spice are more akin to those of PCP and LSD. 

As fast as laws can be made to outlaw the exact chemical mixes that make up the drug, the manufacturers -- usually small operations in China -- simply change their formulas, avoiding the laws meant to stop them. The drug can be found in head shops, tobacco stores, and convenience stores across the U.S. The approach already passed in Anchorage -- and being tried in Wasilla and at the Alaska Legislature -- in dealing with the drug was first instituted in Bangor, Maine. It goes after sellers and people caught possessing Spice, not for specific chemicals found in the drug, but for the way the drug is packaged, marketed and sold. Simply put, if the packaging says it is potpourri or incense, it must be priced as such and not marketed in a way that suggests the contents could be used to get high. The approach has had some success in eliminating the drug from the streets of Anchorage.  But in February, when it was proposed at the request of Wasilla Mayor Vern Rupright, the measure failed because it didn’t get the necessary four votes to pass. (Three members voted for the ordinance and two against, with one absent.) The council agreed to reconsider the failed anti-Spice ordinance on Monday.

"This should be a priority," Said Wasilla City Council member Colleen Sullivan-Leonard.

One of the two City Council members to vote against the ordinance, Brandon Wall, said he will propose an amendment to the anti-Spice ordinance at the next meeting. Wall said he remains concerned that the law could be improperly applied to other legal products like coffee and tobacco alternatives. Wall's proposal to slow the approval process and have a work session over the ordinance failed on Monday.

"(The City Council) essentially voted against even talking about having a work session," Wall said.

Wall is concerned with the general nature of the law that basically outlaws the drug because it is often used for illegal purposes, even if the ingredients themselves are technically legal. His arguments are similar to those that caused the Senate Judiciary Committee to temporarily balk at a similar state law proposed by Senator Kevin Meyer (R-Anchorage). After several hearings, Meyer's bill is set to be taken up by the full Senate as early as next week. A companion bill in the State House, sponsored by Representative Charisse Millett (R-Anchorage) on Wednesday.

Contact Sean Doogan at sean@alaskadispatch.com.

CORRECTION: The Wasilla City Council's next meeting is April 14. A previous version of this story included the wrong date.