Officials fight designer drugs
Tribune News Service
GARDNERVILLE, Nev. – Spice, K2, Blaze, Red X Dawn – these are not the names of some flamboyant deodorant or extreme sports company. These are the names of over-the-counter substances designed to mimic the effects of marijuana. These are the names of a new kind of drug popping up in Douglas County schools.
In a revision to their drug policy, school district officials call them designer drugs: “Drugs synthesized in an attempt to create an analogue of a better-known, illegal or legal chemical.”
Superintendent of Schools Lisa Noonan said only two formal cases involving designer drugs have made it to her level in the last year. However, she said input from the ground level indicates a real and pervasive problem.
“The kids are telling me it’s all over the place,” Noonan said Monday. “That to me is more important information than what actually is seen at my level.”
On Thursday, District Attorney Mark Jackson was in his Minden office with a small canister of Black Mamba, one of countless synthetic cannabinoids developed by dubious manufacturers in the last four years. After a professor studying the effects of THC published the formulas in a scientific journal in 2006, the products, marketed as incense, have spread throughout head shops, liquor stores and the Internet.
“My biggest concern is that they’ve been targeted toward juveniles and high school kids,” Jackson said.
In the last year, he said, the products have become increasingly popular among Carson Valley youth. In November, Jackson teamed up Tammy Morris of juvenile probation and contacted local merchants offering the products.
“I told them they might as well be selling kids rat poison – it’s that dangerous,” Jackson said.
He said the same merchants should be commended for voluntarily pulling the products from their shelves in the last month, as verified by an undercover buy last week.
“All the ones we did public outreach with did not have it anymore,” he reported.
At the state level, Jackson has campaigned for regulation. He’s taken the issue to the Nevada District Attorneys Association, the Governor’s Working Group on Methamphetamine, and the State Pharmacy Board.
He expects the latter, during their Jan. 11-12 meeting, to enact emergency regulation making synthetic cannabinoids a controlled substance, immediately illegalizing its possession and sale.
“That day, it will be a Schedule 1 drug in Nevada, treated the same as cocaine or meth,” Jackson said. “Then we can go back to the stores and say this is the law. Now, this is a crime. You cannot posses it or sell it. It’s a felony, and we will arrest you and shut down your business.”
Jackson said the professor who developed the formulas for research was shocked to learn of their commercial applications.
“He said they were never intended for human consumption, that you might as well play Russian roulette,” he said.
Although manufacturers have made the products to look like marijuana, Jackson said studies suggest the chemicals are 5-8 times more potent than THC. He said there also have been reports of hallucinations, elevated heart rates and blood pressure.
“They use plant material, but it doesn’t matter,” he said. “They’re lacing it by spraying on the chemicals.”
Jackson said two misconceptions about synthetic cannabinoids have perpetuated their popularity in Douglas County: their legal status, and the assumption they can’t be detected.
“We do have the ability to test for it now,” he reassured any prospective users.
Regarding the former, the Drug Enforcement Administration used its emergency scheduling powers in November to temporarily control five chemicals used in the drugs. With the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the agency will study the chemicals over the next year to determine permanent control.
Jackson expects synthetic cannabinoids will soon be outlawed under both state and federal law.
“If you use it, you’re going to get busted,” he said.
The Douglas County School District agrees. Whatever the legal status of designer drugs, the district is taking no chances. On Dec. 14, school board members voted unanimously to approve the first reading of a policy change that addresses the relatively new phenomenon.
Effectively, the change brings designer drugs under the same guidelines, prohibitions and penalties of other controlled substances. For example, any student caught distributing or selling Spice or any other synthetic cannabinoid must be expelled for at least a period equal to one semester. For a second offense, the student must be permanently expelled from their home school.
For possession or being under the influence, a student is suspended for 10 days. Suspension can be cut to five days if the student and one parent attend a drug assessment program through Tahoe Youth and Family Services and follow any recommendation made in that assessment, such as counseling.
“The point is to get help,” Noonan said. “Really, what is helpful for families to realize is that distributing is more than just selling. If a child is smoking marijuana and shares it with a friend, then that constitutes distributing.”
For students engaged in athletics, being under the influence of any controlled substance can also mean the loss of extracurricular privileges, as stipulated by the district’s random drug testing program.
Noonan said when the second reading of the policy change is approved, school officials will work to get the word out about the changes and the harmful effects of designer drugs.
“With Spice in particular, some of the chemicals they’re putting into the base compound are potentially more dangerous than what marijuana is known to do,” Noonan said. “I would fight the same battle against any kind of chemical I thought kids were using the wrong way and which endangered their being.”
Noonan urged parents to be vigilant and routinely check containers in their children’s possession.
“Parents are welcome to call either the site administrator or the district office if they would like to talk to someone about it,” she said. “It’s also very easy to get information on the Internet by Googling the subject, but we’re happy to talk to anyone who has concerns or questions.”
The Superintendent’s Office can be reached at 782-5134.
School trustees are scheduled to meet at the Lake Tahoe Public Library at 3:30 p.m. Jan. 11.