In Banning Synthetic Drugs, Challenge Is Keeping Up With What's In Them

May 6, 2015

Synthetic marijuana, or "spice," that had been seized by Manchester police.

Lawmakers in the New Hampshire House will consider a bill Wednesday that would ban the sale and possession of synthetic drugs.

The issue came to the forefront last year when Gov. Maggie Hassan declared a state of emergency.

That was in response to a spate of nearly two dozen nonfatal overdoses in Manchester from people using a brand of spice, or synthetic marijuana.

Keene Senator Molly Kelly authored the legislation, which has already passed the Senate with unanimous support. Hassan says she’s likely to sign the bill, should it reach her desk.

Senator Kelly joined Morning Edition to talk about her proposal.

From everything you’ve heard, how big of a problem is in this in New Hampshire?

I think it is a big problem. As you said, the governor called for a state of emergency. That’s not done lightly. It only is done when we feel it has risen to that level of real concern. So because of that, and even prior to the governor’s state of emergency, this had been addressed in many communities and towns. That’s really what precipitated the legislation.

And for those unfamiliar, what types of synthetic drugs are we talking about?

I think you are now at the core of the issue. We know what heroin is. We don’t know what synthetic drugs are. We do know that they’re dangerous, that they’re manufactured with all different kinds of chemicals, and it changes constantly. They have been sold over the counter as harmless drugs. I think that the committee’s hardest job was to define what that is and I think you’ll see in the bill that there are actually 11 pages listing different chemicals in synthetic drugs.

Sen. Molly Kelly
Credit Allegra Boverman for NHPR

As you said, one of the issues is trying to get your head around what ingredients constitute a synthetic drug. Manufacturers are constantly changing ingredients to skirt the laws.

We address that in the bill. As I said, all the chemicals that would be found in these drugs today, but as you said, they can change momentarily. They can change tomorrow or up the road.

Our bill, which is a bipartisan bill, listed those drugs, but we also authorized the commissioner of Health and Human Services to oversee those chemicals and to have the authority if he receives information from the Department of Safety to say these drugs have changed. The commissioner of Health and Human Services would then go through a process to actually make those adjustments.

How long would that take?

It doesn’t take long. It would go through rules, working with the Department of Safety. There would be a hearing and it would be changed. In an emergency, the bill also addresses that fact that we may need to do that in a timelier manner. The commissioner can also make that adjustment.

Several communities have passed their own ordinances outlawing synthetic drugs, including your home city of Keene. Do we know how effective these have been?

The city of Keene did institute a ban, but they did come to me and ask for help. They said we need the legislative support to make this statewide. I know there were entities in my own district that had no idea how dangerous synthetic drugs were or bath salts and we’re selling them over the counter. If you walked into those stores today, you wouldn’t see it.