The Wasilla City Council voted 5-1 Monday night to create a new ban on synthetic drugs. The ordinance mimics one passed in Anchorage in January, which has taken one especially dangerous synthetic drug -- known as Spice -- completely off the shelves of the more than two dozen tobacco stores, head shops, and gas stations that sold it. The new law, which was amended Monday to take effect immediately, becomes official at 12:01 a.m. Tuesday.
The new law will make possession or sale of illicit synthetic drugs -- often chemical combinations sprayed on plant material and then smoked or ingested for a temporary and sometimes dangerous high -- illegal, and subject to a $500 civil fine. The approach, pioneered in Bangor, Maine last year and adopted in Anchorage in January, avoids several problems Alaska police officers have had in enforcing already-existing laws. Spice, which is billed as a synthetic marijuana alternative, is an ever-changing cocktail of chemicals never meant for recreational use. Its use has been linked to heart problems, mental illness, and even death. A Wasilla family believes the drug killed 18-year-old Kurtis Hildreth in November of 2013. The drug's chemical combinations change so quickly that they often outpace the laws that are meant to stop them. Older approaches to combating the drug failed because they -- like most other U.S. and Alaska laws -- outlawed specific chemical compounds. The approach passed in Wasilla goes after the packaging of the drug and its intended use, even if it is only implied.
The ordinance contains seven triggers for Wasilla police to determine if the substance or packaging is illegal, including not displaying a place of manufacture or list of active chemical ingredients, and if the packaging suggests the product is used to get high.
Council member Colleen Sullivan-Leonard said that after two months of debate about the ordinance, the six shops that are suspected of selling synthetic drugs in the city should not need much warning to get rid of them, but they would most likely get one.
"We will make sure they are made aware of what's happening, before any citations are issued," Sullivan-Leonard said.
The effort to rid Wasilla of synthetic drugs, started by Mayor Vern Rupright and Wasilla Police Chief Gene Belden, failed in February when, with one member absent, the ordinance didn't get the four votes it needed for passage on the six-member City Council.
Councilperson Brandon Wall opposed the original ordinance and was the only member to vote against the ordinance -- known as Serial Number 14-17 when it passed on Monday. Wall tried, and failed, Monday to introduce several amendments aimed at narrowing the scope of the ordinance. Wall has said he is concerned the law is too broadly written, and would require selective enforcement from the city's police force. Wall claimed it could also be interpreted to make some body-building supplements and caffeine pills illegal. Wall said he felt "shut out" by other members when it came to crafting the ordinance.
"When a member of the Council is trying to make it better, and you ignore any input that member has, that is a complete lack of leadership," Wall said.
In Juneau, lawmakers are considering a similar law that would enforce the new approach to eliminating synthetic drugs on a statewide level. Senate Bill 173, sponsored by Sen. Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage, passed the Senate and now awaits action in the House. Wall said he wanted the language from Meyers' bill used instead of the seven triggers cited in the Wasilla ordinance. Wall claimed that the state language was less ambiguous. But Wall said his amendment failed when Mayor Rupright broke a 3-3 deadlock.
"They didn’t say a flipping word on why they voted no on it, they just voted no," Wall said.
Sullivan-Leonard said Wall's proposed amendments were ultimately rejected by the other members of the Council because they believed, like her, that the law needed to remain as broadly-written as possible so it could avoid the pitfalls of previous laws that have tried and failed to outlaw some synthetic drugs, like Spice.
"We didn't want to go down that rabbit hole," Sullivan-Leonard said.