Editorial | Fake Pot, Real Bans

03/13/2013 4:14 PM

03/13/2013 4:15 PM

We can certainly understand the worries of Surfside Beach leaders, who appear poised to ban a slate of synthetic drugs in the town in the coming weeks. The substances in question can induce vomiting, nausea, hallucinations, paranoid behavior, anxiety and seizures. Why anybody would voluntarily choose such nasty experiences is mystifying. Nevertheless, the town’s proposed action may not be the best solution.

To be clear, the proposed ordinance has not yet even been voted on, only discussed, and the town’s lawyers are currently looking it over before it returns to the town’s leaders for their vote. It could change radically in the next few weeks or be dropped altogether.

In the meantime, a number of issues with the proposed rule as it was presented Monday night come to mind. First, the town’s relatively small size, combined with a transient and fluctuating tourist population that regularly travels to other areas of the Grand Strand, means that any local ban would easily be ignored by those willing to drive a few miles down the road.

Second, it’s not clear that the town’s ban is needed. The vast majority of the chemical compounds on the town’s list are already banned at the federal level, added to the list of illegal drugs as part of an FDA safety act that was signed by the president last July, making a further ban by the town merely redundant. After the change, the Drug Enforcement Agency mounted a major nationwide operation last summer that resulted in 91 arrests, the closure of 29 manufacturing sites and the seizure of enough synthetic marijuana to make 18.5 million packages.

The final concern is linked to the first. The problem of synthetic drugs in general should be handled by a higher authority. The intentionally vague nature of the town’s ordinance is forward thinking, designed to ban not only specific chemical compounds already determined to be unsafe but also prohibit new versions not yet developed. And we agree with the line of thought: If our government has determined a substance unsafe for public use, then it stands to reason that other compounds which have been designed to mimic the banned substance’s effects should also be prohibited. Such action would keep governments from continually playing catch up as drug manufacturers tweak their formulas to get around each new rule.

Surfside Beach’s proposed ordinance would be a step in that direction, banning any substance that causes effects substantially similar to already illegal drugs, with a caveat that such limitations would not apply to goods that can be abused but which have other common and lawful uses -- rubber cement, drain cleaner, gasoline, etc. But we return to the previously cited concern: Surfside Beach is a fairly small municipality. Any changes the town makes, laudable as they might be, would be easily skirted by sellers and users.

A better solution? The state could take action. All it would require would be the removal of four words from current state law.

South Carolina law already bans “controlled substance analogues” that are “substantially similar” to banned drugs. But it bans only those alternative versions “intended for human consumption.” By giving their products deceptively innocuous names such as bath salts or incense or potpourri and labeling them specifically “not for human consumption,” drug pushers have been able to sidestep these rules. As a result, when users who have snorted or smoked or swallowed these substances find themselves in emergency rooms or suffering from psychological problems, the makers and sellers simply throw up their hands and say, don’t blame us, we told them not to use it that way.

State lawmakers could fix that issue by removing those four words from state law, in effect banning all copies and new versions of banned drugs, not just those specifically “intended for human consumption.” In other words, if it looks like LSD, acts like LSD and affects users like LSD, it shouldn’t matter whether it also happens to make your bathtub nice and fizzy, it should be off limits.

Are the proposed Surfside Beach limits a horrible idea? No. But they’re both redundant in many places and their efficacy would be doubtful in an area with development that continues unabated even when town limits stop. The intent of town leaders is appreciated, but frankly working more on issues where they can have a bigger impact would be a more effective use of their time.

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