It is sold as incense, but synthetic marijuana could be more dangerous than plant marijuana, a Minnesota House committee learned Thursday before voting unanimously to make possessing or selling it illegal.
“I spent a few days researching it and quickly came to the conclusion that it is very dangerous,” Executive Director Cody Wiberg of the state Pharmacy Board told the House Public Safety Committee.
Wiberg, who lives in Red Wing, said he first learned of synthetic marijuana when he
Â received a call from a Forum of Fargo-Moorhead reporter in June. The Pharmacy Board decided it would take too long to adopt rules to outlaw the product, so went to the Legislature for help.
A bill by new Rep. John Kriesel, R-Cottage Grove, would established a $3,000 fine and up to a year in jail for selling synthetic marijuana and up to 90 days in jail and a $1,000 fine for possessing it.
“This bill will undoubtedly make our communities safer,” Kriesel said.
The committee unanimously passed the bill onto its only other committee stop, but there is no indication when it could receive a full House vote. Senators will consider a similar bill.
Synthetic marijuana is sold in convenience stores, head shops and other places under names like K2 and Red Dog as incense that is labeled “not for human consumption.”
Â However, Wiberg said, it is sold with a “wink, wink, nudge, nudge” to indicate that it is to be used like normal marijuana. It can be smoked, used in liquid form or baked into brownies, for example.
Synthetic marijuana delivers a similar high, but can cause more serious reactions than regular pot, Wiberg said. He has heard of heart damage, seizures and severe delusions. An Iowa youth’s suicide is blamed on synthetic marijuana.
Executive Director James Franklin of the Minnesota Sheriffs’ Association said in an interview that the state investigation into the problem began in Clay County with The Forum’s call. The newspaper had learned that the drug was legal in Minnesota, but banned in North Dakota, so some in the Fargo area were crossing the Red River to buy synthetic marijuana in Moorhead.
Use of the product is spotty in rural areas, Franklin said, and heavier in the Twin Cities area. However, he added, since it is available on line, synthetic marijuana is hard to track.
The Duluth City Council last year outlawed synthetic marijuana, prompting a deja vu moment for new Rep. Kerry Gauthier, DFL-Duluth. He voted for the Duluth ordinance last year and the Kriesel bill on Thursday.
“I am concerned they will find other ways” to make synthetic marijuana, he said, and avoid state law.
Wiberg said he wrote Kriesel’s bill to be the most broad in the country. A dozen other states outlawed synthetic marijuana, as has the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, but makers of the product often can make small changes to get around the laws.
Some synthetic marijuana is made in a dirty Kansas plant, Wiberg said, and others told the committee much of the drug comes from unregulated facilities in China and South Korea.
Synthetic marijuana is made by spraying any number of chemicals on herbs, but it does not contain organic marijuana. The chemicals were developed more than 40 years ago to treat pain.
Franklin said that synthetic marijuana is in demand. He told of a Duluth shop that had a $250,000 supply of the product.
“There must be a market,” he said.
Cottage Grove Police Chief Craig Woolery told the committee that his community has plenty of “frustrated parents” over the synthetic marijuana issue.
He told of two young men who were sickened by the drug. One told him that he “was tripping on K2 and it was better than ecstasy,” an illegal drug similar to methamphetamine. Both vomited all night, he said.
Dan Schoen of Cottage Grove police said convenience stores and other locations that sell the project are not good community citizens: “I would call them unfriendly business neighbors who don’t care they are selling poison.”
He estimated that the going price for synthetic marijuana, sold as incense, would be $30 to $40 per 3-gram package.
Kriesel said he was surprised that no business owner or organization contacted him to oppose the bill. No one testified against it on Thursday.
Synthetic marijuana use is “wide spread” in Cottage Grove, the lawmaker said.
Sen. Katie Sieben, DFL-Cottage Grove, sponsors the Senate bill.
Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom said that synthetic marijuana users have no idea what ingredients are in the product because the makers are not regulated.
He told about a 14-year-old Hastings boy who “came very close to dying” after using synthetic marijuana last year.