Legislation backed by the administration of Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake would empower city health inspectors to fine — and eventually shut down — retailers that sell synthetic drugs long criticized for appealing to youths with cartoon character marketing and claims of being natural and safe.
State and federal law prohibits the drugs, known by such names as K2 and Spice, but enforcement has proved difficult, mainly because manufacturers change the packaging and chemical makeup of the drugs to avoid prosecution.
The legislation introduced Monday would give the city an additional layer of civil enforcement power, and city officials hope it puts pressure on businesses to follow the law or risk losing their livelihood.
"Thanks to this bill … we will stop the spread of these dangerous drugs in our communities here in Baltimore," Rawlings-Blake said.
If the bill is passed by the City Council, health inspectors could inspect stores for the drugs and confiscate them. The drugs would need to be tested in a lab to determine if they are illegal. If they are, the business could be fined $1,000 per package. The Health Department also could suspend a business license after too many violations in a particular store.
In addition to the legislation, the Health Department has launched an education campaign warning residents about the risks of the drugs and encouraging stores to voluntarily stop selling them. The department sent letters to nearly 1,300 corner stores and other businesses, asking owners to sign a pledge not to sell the products. They also want store owners to put up placards that say "Not a Drug Dealer" and are encouraging members of the community to dial 311 to report any store selling the product.
Hospital emergency rooms have seen an increase in the number of people showing up with health complications after using the drugs, city officials said, although they did not provide specific statistics. People who take the drugs, which can be cheaper than street narcotics, can suffer from seizures, kidney failure, hallucinations, increased heart rate, tremors and unconsciousness.
"These are such dangerous substances, yet they are widely available," said Baltimore Health Commissioner Dr. Leana Wen.
Officials with Health Care for the Homeless said that over the summer, their doctors responded to two or three cases a day of people sickened after taking the drugs.
"People who use spice can be aggressive and risk-taking one minute, then they can pass out on the sidewalk the next minute," said Dr. Nilesh Kalyanaraman, the group's chief medical director.
The city joins Baltimore County in beefing up its laws on synthetic drugs. The county passed legislation last year that tightened a local ban on synthetic marijuana by broadening the definition of drugs that are banned. Harford County is in the process of drafting similar legislation.
The legislation already has gained support from City Council members and two trade groups that represent the convenience stores and retailers that the bill could affect.
City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young said the manufacturers also should be held accountable for deceptive marketing.
"We already have a drug problem in Baltimore, and I don't think we should add to it," Young said.
City Councilman Robert W. Curran, who heads the Health Committee, which would debate the bill, said it needs to go through the legislative process but that he supports the bill on its "initial surface."
Some retailers said that they don't always know they are selling something illegal. The drugs often come in packages labeled as potpourri or incense.
"Unfortunately, our state is suffering from a major drug epidemic, and we want to be a part of whatever we can do to spread the message about scary drugs," said Cailey Locklair Tolle, president of the Maryland Retailers Association.
The trade group that represents convenience stores said it is still reviewing the legislation but that it would support the bill.
"We have the same goals with respect to trying to eliminate and reduce the sales of synthetic drugs in the city," said Ellen Valentino with the Mid-Atlantic Petroleum Distributors Association.
Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, who was Maryland health secretary when statewide legislation banned the sale of synthetic drugs, said the city's initiative could give it more resources in curbing their sale.
"The trickiest part of this has been enforcement, and the legislation appears to bring all the tools the city has to bear on this challenge," said Sharfstein, now an associate dean at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.