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Troopers debate enforcement strategy as statewide ban on synthetic drugs takes effect

  • Author: Tegan Hanlon
  • Updated: May 31, 2016
  • Published October 13, 2014

A new Alaska law that bans Spice and other synthetic street drugs based on their packaging will go into effect Tuesday, on the heels of similarly worded ordinances passed in Anchorage and Wasilla.

The law imposes a fine on anyone in Alaska who possesses, advertises or sells the designer chemical drugs often sold with labels that read "not for human consumption" but are marketed under names like "Mr. Happy," "Dead Man Walking" and "OMG."

On Monday, Alaska State Troopers continued to craft a strategy on how they would handle enforcement of the law, according to John Novak, an assistant attorney general with the Alaska Department of Law. He said he did not expect sweeping enforcement change Tuesday.

"As we speak right now, that instruction, policy and guidance still hasn't been finalized," Novak said Monday afternoon. "The idea here is not to just do something but to do it right."

The new law characterizes a synthetic drug as illicit if its label does not detail its ingredients and the manufacturer's name and address. The law lists other characteristics that may indicate the drug is illegal, including if the label suggests its user will achieve euphoria, hallucinations or mood enhancements, and if the drug is marked for a particular use but the cost is disproportionately higher than for similar-use products.

Spice is often marketed as potpourri or incense.

The state law mimics some of the wording from an Anchorage ordinance that the Assembly unanimously passed in January in an effort to crack down on the synthetic drugs that police said were plaguing the city at increasing rates.

Anchorage followed the example of Bangor, Maine, in regulating the drugs based on their packaging instead of chasing their ever-evolving chemical composition, which nimble manufacturers would change once faced with regulation, according to Cynthia Franklin, the former Anchorage municipal prosecutor who helped write the city's ban.

As of Monday, the Anchorage Police Department had issued seven citations under the ordinance since January, according to Anita Shell, a police spokesperson.

The citations come with a $500 fine per unit of the drug, in efforts to make selling it or using it unaffordable, Franklin said.

"It basically makes what was a $30 high into a $530 high, which nobody really can afford," she said.

The text of the state law indicates that someone cited for violating the statute would receive a $500 maximum fine, though Novak said the court will likely interpret whether that means per unit or in total.

Since Anchorage passed its ordinance on synthetic drugs, there has been a significant drop in the number of Spice-related incidents at the city's sleep-off center, according to Mark Lessard, the city emergency services coordinator.

Lessard said that before the ordinance passed he would see two to three Spice-related incidents per night. He described the individuals' behavior as erratic and occasionally violent and assaultive. Now, he estimates there is about one Spice-related incident every one or two months.

"The drop was dramatic and almost instantaneous," he said.

The Wasilla City Council passed its ordinance banning synthetic drugs in April.

Novak said that as far as he knew Monday, Wasilla and Anchorage were the only Alaska communities with ordinances specifically targeting synthetic drugs based on their packaging.

Along with troopers, local police departments are tasked with enforcing the new state law. Novak said he expects the enforcement campaign to focus on educating businesses.

"The goal here is to have voluntary compliance," he said.

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