As state lawmakers busy themselves with major education and energy legislation, one lawmaker hopes his lower-profile bill will curb the sale of synthetic drugs past the boundaries of Alaska's largest city and into rural towns.
Earlier this month, Anchorage Republican Sen. Kevin Meyer introduced Senate Bill 173. First read on Feb. 14 and referred to the Alaska Legislature's Judiciary Committee, where it's remained since, the bill, Meyer said, mimics a recently passed Anchorage Assembly ordinance that bans synthetic drugs -- substances like "Spice" that are meant to replicate the effects of marijuana and "bath salts" that offer cheap and readily available highs similar to cocaine and hallucinogens -- by targeting misleading marketing. Many of the drugs are sold as "potpourri," "incense" and "iPod cleaner."
On the chemical trail
Meyer previously worked on legislation banning certain chemicals found in synthetic drugs.
In 2011, Alaska lawmakers passed a bill banning synthetic drugs marketed as K2 and Spice.
The next year, they set their sights on banning the sale of chemicals found -- at that time -- in bath salts, substances on par with methamphetamine, cocaine and LSD. The dangerous powders quickly became popular due in part to the fact that they don't show up on conventional urinalysis tests. Bath salts also made big news in 2012 when the substances were suspected as a possible culprit for face-eating attacks in Florida and Louisiana. A medical examiner later did not detect bath salts in the body of the Florida suspect, and police did not test the Louisiana suspect to confirm what drugs were in his system.
But there was and still is a problem with stopping the flow of the drugs in Alaska. The drugs' producers -- like a China-based manufacturer contacted by a Wasilla lawmaker's son, who used the connection to buy large amounts of adulterated ecstasy until the death of an acquaintance prompted federal charges -- are changing the chemical compositions of products faster than authorities can draft new laws.
"We did Spice and then we did bath salts, trying to make the chemicals illegal," Meyer said. "But that route didn't work because they'd just change them." The new approach is "worth a try. We can't just shy away from this stuff. Kids are going to end up hurt and killed."
Selling synthetic highs
That new approach mirrors an Anchorage ordinance that came into effect Jan. 14, immediately after the city's elected assembly members approved it unanimously. With its passage, Anchorage became the second city in the nation to take a unique approach in penalizing business operators and employees selling synthetic highs.
The law was modeled after a similar approach used in Bangor, Maine: Make synthetic drugs illegal because their packaging and stated intended uses are misleading.
Meyer and his team began writing SB 173 before Anchorage had passed its ordinance. He wanted to do something, and city officials told him about the steps being taken in Maine and said they'd be trying something similar. Meyer said it was difficult to draft, but the bill contains only slight differences.
Among the bill's particulars, it states a synthetic drug is illicit if the label is false or misleading or if the packaging doesn't specify the ingredients in the drug. It also makes it illegal for packaging to advertise guaranteed highs.
Such drugs are sold under a seemingly endless number of labels, but Meyer and his team attempted to cover all the bases by including a long list of "street names." Among the drugs made illegal by the bill are Black Mamba, Chronic Spice, Dragon's Fire, Meow Meow, Mr. Nice Guy and Vanilla Sky -- just to name a few.
$500 fine across Alaska
Just like the Anchorage ordinance, the proposed state law would slap offenders with a fine of $500 per package.
Anchorage police handed out six citations within a week of the ordinance's passage, said Anchorage municipal prosecutor Cynthia Franklin. Of those, Franklin's office considered three to "squarely meet the ordinance," and she dismissed the remaining three because they were packages not banned by the ordinance. Of the three that fell within the ordinance's criteria, one person paid the fine, one person is contesting the charge and has hired an attorney, and the last person has yet to respond.
Since Jan. 21, police haven't spotted synthetic drugs on the shelves of smoke shops around Anchorage.
"A sweep of over 20 stores that formerly sold the outlawed product on January 31 yielded zero packages," Franklin said in an email. "There are still products on the street that people either bought before the ban or from Internet sales."
Meyer said he thinks $500 is a reasonable statewide fine.
"As far as individuals that happen to have a package, if we made the fine too large we're never going to collect any money," he said. "They'll just blow it off. We can take their (Permanent Fund dividend), but that's only up to about $1,000. We initially wanted more, but I think that amount will get the message out to kids and to retailers that we don't want this stuff."
A persistent problem
Meyer said he is optimistic his bill will pass. Seven senators from around the state signed on as co-sponsors the day SB 173 was introduced.
There has been opposition to the Anchorage ordinance, and the Wasilla City Council recently voted down a similar ordinance. Three members of the council voted to regulate the sale of the drugs. Two members voted against the ordinance and one member was absent, making it a vote shy of passage.
The approach may face a legal challenge. At least one legal advocacy group sees potential problems with the law. The American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska said the new Anchorage Spice law may be too broadly worded. The Alaska ACLU executive director said he believes that the law could be thrown out by a judge because it could be applied to too many consumer goods, such as coffee and plant food.
While Meyer admitted he was discouraged by the Wasilla council's vote, he thinks people understand synthetic drugs are a persistent problem. The drugs have reached as far as the Bering Strait village of Diomede.
The bill requires 11 of 20 votes to pass, he said.
"I'm a little surprised that someone would actually vote against the bill," Meyer said. "What they're saying ... is they're OK with this stuff being legally sold despite its harms."
He expects the Judiciary Committee to hold a hearing on his bill next week.