Possessing and selling the synthetic drug Spice is now a crime in Alaska's largest city, as the Anchorage Assembly unanimously passed an ordinance Tuesday evening making "illicit synthetic drugs" illegal.
The crowd clapped as the tally appeared on a large screen in the Assembly chambers.
The ordinance contains broad language that covers both Spice (synthetic cannabinoids) and bath salts (synthetic cathinones). The possession and sale of both is now a misdemeanor crime.
"Not everything will be covered by this ordinance," city prosecutor Seneca Theno told the Assembly, but "this is as broad as we can do right now."
Still, some of the substances listed in the ordinance have been seized by APD, Theno said, and "would be testable and prosecutable."
The maximum penalty for selling Spice is now a year in jail and a $10,000 fine. The maximum penalty for Spice use is now six months in jail and a $2,000 fine.
Before the vote, citizens spoke both in support and opposition of the ordinance.
Billy Ray Powers told Assembly members, "We really don't have a Spice problem. What we have is … an inebriate homeless problem ... the Spice is just a byproduct of that."
Issuing fines and putting people in jail "is really not a productive thing," Powers said.
Catherine Muntean disagreed. "Spice is a symptom, but it's a symptom that needs to be reacted to," Muntean said.
Muntean told Assembly members that she was "really, really grateful that there is something coming up to make it a criminal charge," but questioned whether criminally charging users was appropriate.
The ordinance was created as a response to a marked increase in medical emergency calls surrounding the drug, which started in mid-July. In October, the numbers reached their highest point yet, with around one-fifth of all Anchorage Fire Department medical transports due to suspected use of Spice.
While calls come in from all over the city, 80 percent come from the downtown area and Mountain View, according to the Anchorage Fire Department.
Dealers are targeting the city's homeless population, the Anchorage Police Department has said; police know who the dealers are, but have been unable to do much to stem the problem, because Spice was not a crime, but a civil violation, akin to a traffic ticket.
Police say they intend to target dealers, not users, of the drugs. City prosecutor Theno said that Anchorage police will decide on a case-by-case basis whether to arrest a drug user or issue them a citation to appear in court at a later date.
Deferred sentencing, in which charges are dropped if a user fulfills certain requirements, could incentivize a user to get treatment, Theno said.
Assemblywoman Amy Demboski said later that Bean's Café and Brother Francis Shelter need to "step up and take some accountability" for the overdoses happening on their property.
"I don't have a lot of empathy for people when we're (treating) the same person on one 24-hour shift," Demboski said.
The city's struggle mirrors a larger national problem. On Oct. 15, the Drug Enforcement Administration announced the results of a 15-month investigation into synthetic "designer drugs" that culminated in 151 arrests in 16 states.