Synthetic drugs illegal under new federal law

Synthetic substances that mimic traditional illegal drugs, and are killing young people in increasing numbers, now are against federal law.

President Barack Obama Monday signed a food and drug safety bill into law with provisions outlawing synthetic drugs such 2C-E and “spice.”

Police attribute at least two Minnesota youths’ deaths to synthetic drugs, as well as a recent one in North Dakota. However, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., she has heard from families that blame deaths on what some call “designer drugs,” but have no proof that was the cause of death.

Many other youths have been hospitalized with synthetic drug problems.

The new law bans 2C-I, which Klobuchar’s office said was what last month killed 17-year-old Elijah Stai of Park Rapids, Minn. Also, Christian Bjerk, 18, of Grand Forks, N.D., died in a case police link to Stai’s death.

“In Minnesota and across the country, we are seeing more and more tragedies where synthetic drugs are taking lives and tearing apart families,” said Klobuchar, who authored the synthetic drug provisions. “Today’s action means that this critical legislation to give law enforcement the tools they need to crack down on synthetic drugs is finally the law of the land.”

However, Klobuchar said in an interview, federal lawmakers need to continue dealing with the issue. People who make the synthetic drugs keep changing formulas to use chemicals that are legal.

“It is a good, strong signal that these drugs are clearly illegal,” Klobuchar said of the new law, and an existing law can be used to prosecute people who sell drugs similar to those specifically listed in the law.

The law needs to be broadened, the senator said, so as drug makers change ingredients the new formulas will be illegal. Until then, fighting synthetic drugs will remain difficult for police.

“It’s like bailing water out of your basement with a bucket,” Moorhead Police Chief David Ebinger said at a Klobuchar-sponsored meeting on the issue.

In Minnesota, changes began last year after a northern suburban Twin Cities youth died from using synthetic marijuana.

Both of the last two state legislative sessions passed laws to crack down on synthetic drugs that legally were sold as incense and bath salts.

Many people, mostly youths, have been hospitalized after using synthetic drugs.

In 2010, Stacy Huberty of Hastings, Minn., spent hours in the emergency room with her 14-year-old son, Sam, after he used synthetic marijuana. She then became one of the forces arguing for stricter laws.

While traditional drugs were illegal, the new chemical versions that offered similar highs were legal and being openly sold in local shops and promoted on YouTube and other youth-oriented venues.

Minnesota communities, especially Moorhead and Duluth, cracked down on shops selling synthetic drugs.

The 2C-E hallucinogen and eight similar substances are among those banned in the new federal law. Included are K2, also known as spice, and some substances marketed as “bath salts” that affect the body much like cocaine and methamphetamine.

Klobuchar said rural communities have a special problem with synthetic drugs because it is hard to get scientists to go to the more remote areas to prove the chemicals are illegal. Spelling out the major chemicals used to make the drugs, as in the new federal law, should help, she said.

Calls to poison control centers about synthetic drugs have quadrupled since 2010, Klobuchar said.

The synthetic drug provision was included in a broader bill that also increases food safety inspection controls.

Plus, the bill contained Klobuchar provisions to help prevent drug shortages and a plan pushed by U.S. Sen. Al Franken, DFL-Minn., to get life-saving medical devices to patients quicker.

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