Baltimore County officials seek tighter ban on synthetic marijuana

A Baltimore County councilwoman is seeking to tighten a local ban on synthetic marijuana, saying manufacturers have found ways around a state ban enacted last year as well as federal and county laws.

Councilwoman Vicki Almond said existing laws against synthetic marijuana, often called K2 or Spice, only prohibit certain chemical compounds — and manufacturers can tweak formulas to make them legal.

"These chemicals — they just change them so often that there's no way to keep up with naming the chemicals that are involved in this stuff," said Almond, who introduced the county legislation.

The Reisterstown Democrat said she became concerned after hearing from county police that the substance was still being sold. Her bill, which is supported by the county Police Department and state's attorney, would instead outlaw any psychoactive substance or compound created with man-made chemicals that mimic the intoxicating effects of marijuana THC.

"It doesn't name the chemicals," Almond said. "It's a much broader bill."

Smoking synthetic marijuana is considered dangerous by health officials. Reactions can include anxiety, paranoia, and an increase in heart rate and blood pressure, said Bruce Anderson, director of operations at the Maryland Poison Center.

"These are materials that are often times sprayed onto potpourri or other fragrant botanical type of material with no quality control," he said. "It's just a guy in a back room spraying stuff."

Baltimore County State's Attorney Scott Shellenberger said he's worried about the health effects of synthetic marijuana, especially on young people.

"Nobody knows what's in this stuff," he said. "You're putting some very dangerous unknown chemicals into your body."

County police spokeswoman Elise Armacost said in a statement that narcotics detectives "are confident that they will be able to do a much better job of getting synthetic cannabinoids off the market ... once this legislation passes. It's a more holistic, common-sense approach to regulating these drugs than the one we now have."

Mike Gimbel, a substance-abuse consultant who once led Baltimore County's anti-drug efforts, called Almond's bill "feel-good legislation" that won't do much good because people will be able to buy the substance elsewhere.

He also questioned why the legislation doesn't cover other synthetic drugs, such as "bath salts" that can be snorted, and said officials should focus on helping residents get drug treatment rather than passing new bans.

"We have a serious drug problem in Baltimore County," Gimbel said. "The real work is, how do we help those people?"

Almond's legislation is set to be discussed Tuesday at a council work session, with a vote scheduled for Jan. 21.

At Peace of Sunshine, a Catonsville shop that sells smoking supplies, owner Larry Zwick said he hasn't carried synthetic marijuana since 2010, when the county enacted its ban. The state ban went into effect in October. Zwick said he didn't realize it could still be legal — and was concerned about the effects it could have on people's health.

"I thought it was banned — I thought it was done," he said.

It was once a popular item at his store, but in the past few months, only two people have even asked whether he carries it, Zwick said.

Anderson said calls to Maryland Poison Center about synthetic marijuana spiked in 2012, when the center received 224. That number was 76 last year. He said public awareness and the federal law — passed in 2012 — could be reasons for the decrease.

But synthetic drugs are still out there, officials say. Last year, Shellenberger's office successfully prosecuted a Towson merchant who was selling synthetic marijuana. Police started investigating the retailer after a Towson University student became sick from the product.

Shellenberger said it is usually hard to prosecute those who sell the substance because they are marketed as incense or herbs, and store owners can say they aren't selling it as a drug.

"He made statements when they were buying it that clearly showed he was selling it as synthetic marijuana," Shellenberger said. "We were able to prove he knew what he was selling."

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