WASILLA -- The city of Wasilla easily approved a ban on synthetic drugs like Spice and bath salts Monday night after failing to pass a similar measure in February.
The city council in a 5-1 vote backed a new ordinance that makes possession, use or sale of illicit synthetic drugs a minor offense, punishable by a $500 citation.
Wasilla's ban is based on one enacted by the Anchorage Assembly in January to curb use of the substances, especially among young people, that experts say trigger unpredictable or psychotic behavior and potentially dangerous or even deadly physical reactions.
Police say six businesses in Wasilla sell substances that fall into the newly regulated category.
The ban became effective immediately after the vote Monday evening.
It targets synthetic drugs based on packaging -- manufacturing information, ingredients -- rather than chemical contents. That's because authorities say the people who make the drugs, often based in Chinese labs, change the formulas regularly to stay ahead of state and federal bans based on ingredients.
The synthetic drug of choice in the Valley right now appears to be Spice, created by spraying leafy plant matter with chemicals. It's often marketed like marijuana but can reportedly lead to psychosis, hallucinations or cardiac problems.
Before the vote, Kerri Stevens told the council that Spice killed her 18-year-old nephew, Kurtis Hildreth, in her Wasilla home last November.
Stevens told the group she was the one who found Hildreth, a pipe in his hand, next to a window in his bedroom. She later said she found packets of "No More Mr. Nice Guy" and "Mad Hatter" labeled as incense and "not for human consumption" that he'd started using after staying sober for six months.
"He knew what the stuff was and he had been warned about it," she said. "In a child's mind, if you can buy it in a store, then it must be safe. That's what he thought."
She implored the council to vote for the ban.
The passage of the ordinance this time around was all but assured, with three of six council members plus the mayor and police chief named as sponsors.
The February vote was actually 3-2 vote in favor of the ordinance but council member Leone Harris was absent, so the body fell short of the four votes needed to authorize new legislation. An outraged public demanded action in the weeks that followed. Numerous Wasilla residents urged -- at times begged-- the council to reconsider and pass some kind of ordinance, even an imperfect one.
Council members on Monday night dismissed without debate nine separate amendments proposed by Brandon Wall, one of the two council members who had voted against the original ordinance in February.
Wall's amendments included one giving the city the authority to suspend or revoke a retailer's business license after they were caught selling synthetic drugs once.
Wall, in what he described as his most important proposal, urged the council to add an "indicator" for police weighing what constitutes a synthetic drug to improve the odds that city citations stand up in court. The language would have brought Wasilla's ordinance closer to legislation proposed by Rep. Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage, he said.
The language in the ordinance is too vague, Wall said. "The opportunity just like we saw in Anchorage for citations that get dismissed goes through the roof."
That amendment was defeated in a 3-3 tie broken with a "no" vote by Mayor Verne Rupright.
Anchorage's ban in January resulted in six tickets issued within the first couple of days, all to merchants, municipal prosecutor Cynthia Franklin said in an interview last week.
She dismissed three after it turned out police officers wrote them for "substances other than those addressed in the ordinance," Franklin said. The citations were written for packages of what the prosecutor called "smoking herbs" like Kratom that aren't illegal because their ingredients are clearly listed.
One person paid their ticket, she said. It wasn't clear what happened with the other two.
Officers in late January went back to 20 retailers previously thought to sell Spice and found none on the shelves, Franklin said. "All the clerks in the stores they went into said if you want to buy that stuff you've got to go to Wasilla."
Residents at Monday night's meeting asked the council not to let Wasilla become known as the place where Anchorage buys Spice, referring to teenagers selling it at a 400 percent markup in town.
Wasilla may, however, become known as the place where Alaska's first proven Spice fatality occurred.
Stevens said her family finally got word about four weeks ago that the state Medical Examiner's Office will perform toxicology tests on Hildreth to determine if, in fact, his is the first documented Spice-related death in the state, she said after the vote.
She praised the council's actions.
"I'm happy for any step forward, even if it just saves one more life, helps one more family," she said.
Reach Zaz Hollander at firstname.lastname@example.org or 907-352-6705.
By ZAZ HOLLANDER