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RI legislators aim to outlaw synthetic, legalize organic marijuana

When state legislators convene after the first of the year, they will again face a bill to legalize organic marijuana and a new measure to ban its synthetic counterpart.

Representative Edith Ajello (D-Dist. 3, Providence) is the sponsor of legislation for the third session in a row that would legalize pot in Rhode Island, while Rep. Joseph McNamara (D-Dist. 19, Warwick, Cranston) is drafting legislation to ban the sale of synthetic marijuana and bath salts.

Ajello’s bill, which would make marijuana legal and impose restrictions on the sale of the drug similar to those for alcohol, was heard last year in committee but was never voted on. Ajello said she’s unsure if it will make it to a vote this session either.

Ajello said legalizing marijuana would reduce criminal activity, both in Mexico, where the drug is harvested and exported, and here, where it’s sold illegally on the street. Ajello said her biggest concern is making sure children and teens don’t have easy access to it, something she sees as being a problem now. Quality control and regulations of both the manufacturing and sale of the drug would eliminate street sales and prevent young people from getting their hands on it, said Ajello.

She also sees it as a potential revenue source for the state.

“It could be taxed at both the wholesale and retail point,” she said.

Ajello said polls show people have the same opinion about marijuana as they do about alcohol: if used responsibly, they’re both safe. A Rasmussen poll released in the spring showed 56 percent of Americans favor legalizing pot, which is up considerably from a Pew Research Poll conducted in 2010 showing 41 percent support.

Although marijuana legalization is traditionally unpopular with Republicans, Rep. Brian Newberry, the House Minority Leader, will again co-sponsor the bill.

Ajello said Newberry’s co-sponsorship is a “measure of the breadth of support” the bill has received.

Because she’s not sure if the bill will be put to a vote this session, Ajello isn’t putting a timeframe on the legalization of marijuana in Rhode Island. She said she could see it being a ballot referendum but is sure the question would be wordy and lengthy. She thinks that, especially in the wake of Colorado’s and Washington’s legalization of marijuana, more and more states will legalize the drug.

But Rep. McNamara says Rhode Island still has “a long way to go” when it comes to legalizing pot. He said it was a 10-year process to come to the current terms for medical marijuana and sees a similar long road ahead for the drug’s legalization. He said he would have to have a variety of questions answered about specific regulations of the drug before he would vote in favor of the bill.

So while Ajello is working to make organic marijuana legal, McNamara is striving to ensure that synthetic pot is not. He said he was inspired to draft this legislation when two students at the Pawtucket school he works at were caught smoking. When he confronted them, they confessed they had been smoking K2.

“I Googled it,” said McNamara of the alphanumerical drug name. “I thought [the students] were talking about a peak in the Himalayas. I was shocked to find it was a very dangerous form of synthetic marijuana,” he said.

K2 is popular because it doesn’t show up in drug tests and it’s easy to obtain. McNamara’s students plainly explained to him, “It’s legal.”

“It’s sold up and down Warwick Avenue,” he said.

That’s what he wants to put an end to.

In July 2012 President Barack Obama signed into law a federal ban on bath salts and synthetic cannabis, as well as other compounds that produce similar affects. Both bath salts and synthetic pot are currently listed as Schedule I drugs, or those without a known medicinal purpose that are highly abused.

Still, manufacturers of such drugs come up with new chemical combinations extremely frequently, and by skirting around the precise combination of chemicals currently deemed illegal, they create a loophole through which to legally sell and distribute the drugs they concoct. McNamara said the key is changing the language on the books.

“The bill would prohibit the sale of a substance with a chemical structure similar to that of a controlled substance and is specifically designed to produce the effect of the controlled substance,” he said.

Basically, by creating an umbrella that covers all synthetic forms of recreational drugs, McNamara believes Rhode Island can crack down on the sale of such substances once and for all.

McNamara, who serves as the chairman for the House Committee on Health, Education and Wellness, said he has been doing some research into these manmade drugs.

Unlike prescription or over-the-counter medications, regulations for manufacturing synthetic marijuana and bath salts are ersatz. McNamara said that, in the case of synthetic marijuana, manufacturers take an innocuous weed and spray it with the chemical they’ve created to achieve the desired high. But sometimes, parts of the weed receive a higher concentration of the chemical than others, making it hard for the user to control their intake of the drug. He also said some experts have found that the strength of these synthetic products can be up to 100 times more powerful than organic THC, the compound found in cannabis.

Many of these synthetic substances are marketed and sold as “herbal incense,” “potpourri” or “botanical sachet” at convenience stores and gas stations. The packaging on these legal synthetic drugs is slightly different from the potpourri sold at home décor stores, and synthetic cannabinoids are often sold by the ounce or gram.

But unlike its organic counterpart, synthetic marijuana has been known to cause violence, deliriousness, high blood pressure, vomiting, serious health complications and even death. McNamara said those with a certain genetic predispositions are more vulnerable to such side effects. He said one of his students began using synthetic marijuana and had to be admitted to a psychiatric hospital.

“He’ll never be the same,” he said. “It’s just a tragedy.”

McNamara plans to draw inspiration from a 2011 New Jersey statute with language that accounts for all newly reconfigured drugs. He expects to file the bill prior to the Jan. 1 start of the legislative session.


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