Chicago's ban on 'synthetic marijuana' to begin
A mother whose 19-year-old son died after smoking "synthetic marijuana" applauded Chicago for a ban on such products at a news conference Tuesday, starkly underlining the dangers of a new trend among youth.
Sold in convenience stores and gas stations under names such as "K2" and "Head Trip," the products mimic the high of marijuana but have more dangerous side effects including seizures and dangerously elevated heart rates. The smokeable herbal products are typically made of plant material that's been spiked with research chemicals -- synthetic cannabinoids -- that were developed to study brain receptors activated by marijuana. They products are sold, with a wink, as incense or potpourri.
In Chicago, businesses selling the products will face fines from $500 to $1,000 and could have their business licenses revoked when the law goes into effect Wednesday. A new state law, taking effect Jan. 1, goes even further, making possession or sale of the products a felony with penalties ranging from 1 to 60 years.
While some researchers oppose criminalizing the compounds because it could slow research on possible pharmaceutical uses against disease, many states are enacting bans and the U.S. drug agency took emergency action to categorize them alongside heroin as Schedule I drugs.
Max Dobner, of Aurora, died June 14 after smoking what he thought was a safe product, said his mother, Karen Dobner. He suffered a panic attack and crashed his car into a house. The Chicago ordinance is named Max's Law in his honor.
"He went to the mall one day with his friend. They saw this stuff and (the friend) said they had a conversation that it must be safe because it's legal," Karen Dobner said. "His conclusion was wrong."
At least 40 states have passed laws or written departmental rules to ban synthetic marijuana, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
In March, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration took emergency action to control five chemicals used in making synthetic marijuana, citing an imminent threat to public safety. The DEA's action made the substances illegal for a year, with a possible six-month extension, while federal health officials study them and make recommendations.
The DEA cited an increase in poison control center calls and emergency room visits related to abuse of synthetic marijuana. Side effects include convulsions, anxiety attacks, dangerously elevated heart rates, increased blood pressure, vomiting and disorientation.
At the Chicago news conference, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan said Chicago's law and the new state law are both needed steps. Mayor Rahm Emanuel issued a statement in support of the new city law.
Will County State's Attorney James Glasgow said law enforcement agencies in his county will start enforcing the new state Jan. 1 with compliance checks and undercover buys. Glasgow helped draft the new state law, which greatly expanded previous state laws banning certain synthetic chemicals used in the products.
"We were outlawing them formula by formula," Glasgow said. The new state law details all known formulas for synthetic marijuana, he said.
Glasgow had harsh words for Clemson University researcher John Huffman who developed many of the analogues and metabolites of THC, the main active ingredient of marijuana. Glasgow's office contacted Huffman for help with lab test standards for the substances, but Huffman declined to cooperate, Glasgow said -- and Huffman confirmed to The Associated Press.
"He creates the poison, he should do something to help," Glasgow said.
Huffman told the AP that some of the compounds may be useful one day in treating multiple sclerosis, cancer, pain and nausea. Researchers would have to face unreasonable obstacles to research if the compounds remain classified as Schedule I drugs.
"This would deter research efforts in this field," Huffman said by email. "Research in this area is essential because at this time the details of how these compounds differ from marijuana are not known. It is known that these compounds are dangerous, but making them `illegal' will not stop their recreational use."
Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, also has said research on the compounds is important.
On Tuesday, the agency's press office said Volkow stands by that statement and studying the compounds could lead to new treatments for "a variety of conditions including pain, obesity, and even addiction." The public health concern surrounding abuse of the compounds and the effect on research should be considered, the agency's press office said.