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Arizona moves in the right direction with passage of synthetic drug law

The mix of herbs known as spice produces a high comparable to marijuana but is marketed legally as incense. K2 is a brand under which spice is sold. (Photo by the Drug Enforcement Administration)

A little more than two weeks ago, Arizona joined the ranks of more than 41 states that have successfully passed urgent measures to combat an epidemic that is shattering families, plaguing law enforcement and killing more of our citizens each day. For Arizonans, the signing of HB2327 serves as a critical tool aimed at attacking the production and use of so-called “designer” drugs commonly referred to as “bath salts” or “Spice.”

Though known for their ability to produce euphoric highs and their relatively easy obtainability, the increased prevalence of use among middle and high school students, in particular, has become increasingly alarming in recent years. For example, in 2012 the Arizona Criminal Justice Commission found that nearly 7 percent of eighth-graders, more than 11 percent of 10th-graders and almost 14 percent of 12th-graders had tried synthetic drugs in Arizona.

The factors driving these staggering statistics may vary. The most surprising? Until this month, synthetic drugs have been widely available and most often legal in Arizona.

Prior to just two weeks ago, on any given day in Arizona, a host of retail locations, often called “smoke shops,” could peddle the dangerous drugs as “legal” alternatives to “safely” get high. To entice new users and attempt to create a cool, cult-like following, makers of the drugs eventually became master marketers, too.
With names like “Skittles” and “Scooby Doo,” complete with creative, brightly-colored packaging, these seemingly child-like “goodies,” introduced countless individuals, especially teens and young adults, to a world of behavioral, emotional and psychological turmoil that in many cases is tragically irreversible.

For many years, users, while often holding an affinity to one brand name or another, never questioned the constant changes in “flavor combinations,” at their favorite shop. This however, has been the fundamental problem in combating the trend. By having an ever-changing product, drug manufacturers perpetuated a never-ending game of “cat- and mouse,” — one that law enforcement officials were unfortunately to play.

As quickly as new compounds were discovered, identified and outlawed, drug makers could quickly and easily flood the market with new and more powerful concoctions. By changing even one, simple ingredient they remained unfazed; their operations relatively uninterrupted. They continued to develop and distribute their deadly brand of highly addictive poison, leaving a trail of unstable addicts and devastated families whose lives will never be the same.

With little recourse for law enforcement, and therefore, no risk for arrest, prosecution or jail time, users in Arizona continued to succumb to a relentless addiction that they, and their unreliable “sources” for information on its risks, could easily justify as legal and safe.

Additionally, relatively limited information, research and resources had historically been available to arm parents, teachers and the community with tools and knowledge about the constantly changing landscape and an evasive moving target.

Arizona was at a breaking point.

Thankfully, Arizona has taken a stand. HB2327, signed into law and noted as “urgent,” and “effective immediately,” is the beginning of what will beat these dangerous drug makers at their own game. This blanket approach, not only classifies the drugs among the ranks of other hard drugs such as cocaine, heroine and methamphetamines, but also negates previous issues of combating specific chemical compounds.

By outlawing the drug’s chemical backbone, HB2327 eliminates the ability for individuals and organizations to easily and effectively re- work, re-produce, re-sell and re-introduce.

Arizonans can feel good knowing that now, regardless of “brand,”
flavor, intensity or derivative, law enforcement stands ready to expose, educate and eliminate the problem.

Thanks to the new law, officials have already begun to see a decrease in supply, and even demand, as the criminal risks for those users, sellers and organized crime groups now vastly outweigh the benefits of doing this type of business in our state. Powerful incentives for treatment are sure to follow. Significant seizures, arrests and prosecutions will re-direct addicts toward a path of hope and recovery, all resulting in significant improvements in treatment outcomes and quality of life for users and their families.

HB2327 demonstrates the right way to deal with those who choose to ruin lives. More work remains to be done, but we are moving in the right direction and can rest assured a solid foundation has been set as we chart our course of action.

— Kristen Polin oversees public affairs, fundraising, marketing, community development and prevention efforts as vice president of community relations and development at Community Bridges, Inc., a nonprofit provider of substance abuse and mental health treatment.

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