In an effort to stay ahead of manufacturers, Washington is banning a lengthy list of synthetic recreational drugs, including new forms of synthetic marijuana, bath salts and derivatives of fentanyl, a powerful painkiller.
The state Department of Health’s Pharmacy Quality Assurance Commission issued an emergency order last week adding new chemical analogues of four broad synthetic drug categories to the state’s list of controlled substances.
The list includes new forms of spice, the ever-evolving synthetic drug that mimics marijuana, though its effects on the body can be quite different. Spice has been illegal in Washington since 2011, but because drug laws deal with specific compounds, manufacturers can get around them with slight tweaks in chemical formulas.
Synthetic drugs are typically sold online and in convenience stores and smoke shops.
“The folks who manufacture this stuff are very good at changing the chemical composition of the substance enough to bring it back into legal,” said Mike Lopez, medical director of the Spokane Fire Department. “We can’t create a rule that addresses all the different permutations of the spice.”
The language of the rule shows the difficulty in broad bans of synthetic drugs. For example, the section banning spice lists 18 specific chemicals. Among the shortest is “UR-144(1-pentyl-1H-indol-3-yl)(2,2,3,3-tetramethylcyclopropyl)(methanone).”
The change adds substances that the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has already added to the federal list of controlled substances.
In a petition requesting the change, Washington Assistant Attorney General Jeffrey Rupert said Washington’s list had not been updated in several years, and thus didn’t include most products currently on the market.
Spice is more dangerous and unpredictable than marijuana because it is unregulated and the chemicals it contains are not labeled, he said.
“Perhaps because of the reference to marijuana in its common name of ‘synthetic marijuana,’ there is a perception by some that it is safe. Synthetic marijuana is not marijuana. People can die from using synthetic marijuana,” Rupert wrote.
Lopez said synthetic drugs typically surface in Spokane in cycles. The fire department will see a cluster of calls related to one, usually spice, then inform the Spokane Police Department, who will visit the store owner and remind them the substance is illegal. Calls die down until another store starts selling a slightly different chemical, he said.
Spice often impairs consciousness in a way marijuana doesn’t, making it an especially dangerous drug for people to consume in public. Lopez said calls about spice often involve people passed out on sidewalks or staggering in and out of traffic.
“They’re totally unaware of their surroundings,” he said. That creates a danger if someone is near busy streets or bridges, or if they pass out in a position where they can’t keep their airway open.
Though marijuana is legal in Washington, spice is cheaper and can create a more intense high, making it a more attractive choice for some. It’s typically sold at convenience stores, Lopez said.
Fentanyl derivatives have been less of a problem in Spokane, he said.
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