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San Diego Broadens Ban On ‘Spice’

Photo caption:

Photo credit: San Diego City Attorney's Office

Packages of the street drug called "spice" bought by undercover San Diego police officers appear in this undated photo.

Some worry the law may make synthetic marijuana users not seek help if the drug sickens them. The City Council is set to vote Tuesday on expanding the ban.


Cynthia Burke, criminal justice research director, SANDAG



The San Diego City Council on Tuesday gave its second unanimous approval to the "spice" ban. It also passed an "emergency ordinance," allowing the ban to take effect immediately.


San Diego will likely soon see a new ban on the synthetic marijuana drugs called "spice," but some worry it could be too broad.

Many versions of spice are legal to sell over the counter in much of California. That's because only five chemicals used to make the drug are banned in the state, so drug makers slightly alter their formulas to get around those bans.

Last month, the San Diego City Council voted unanimously to create an expansive local ban on both selling and possessing all versions of spice. It approved an ordinance that aims to outlaw the drug’s effects on the brain rather than its chemical makeup.

RELATED: Half The Juveniles Arrested In The County Last Year Used ‘Spice,’ SANDAG Reports

The council's final approval of the law is scheduled for Tuesday.

The plan was first hatched last fall, when San Diego headlines were filled with news about bad reactions to spice — from seizures to hallucinations to difficulty breathing.

San Diego paramedics used to be called to treat people who’d taken spice about 20 to 30 times a month. But in November, that number spiked to 62 times. And it climbed from there to 201 in February, according to city data.

Heroin overdoses generated 48 emergency calls in San Diego in February. Methamphetamine-related calls generated the most, at 208 calls.

Photo caption:

Photo by Susana Tsutsumi

The number of times paramedics were called to treat someone in San Diego who had taken the drug "spice."

Last year, 48 percent of juveniles arrested in San Diego County reported using spice, according to the San Diego Association of Governments. The percentage of arrested adults who said they have taken spice has climbed from 16 percent in 2012 to 24 percent last year.

Kathryn Turner, a chief deputy city attorney in San Diego, said spice is sold in smoke shops as potpourri — "but very expensive potpourri." Packs cost on average about $15.

In 2011, California banned the compounds used to make spice, but Turner said "evil chemists just slightly change the molecular architecture of these compounds.”

These changes mean the drug still gets you high, but now is legal again. And because the chemicals keep changing, there’s no way to completely predict how the body will respond to them.

Now San Diego is following other states, including Rhode Island and Florida, by banning not just specific chemicals used to make spice but any compound that produces a similar reaction in the brain.

In Rhode Island, eight chemicals used to make spice were banned, but that wasn't enough to stop the drug from being sold, said the state's attorney general, Peter Kilmartin.

So Kilmartin drafted a new ban in 2013.

"The first year we banned individual compounds. But due to the nature of these synthetic drugs, all one had to do was make a slight alteration of the compound and it would still be legal," he said. "Then we went back the following year and banned classes of compounds, and that addressed the problem."

Rhode Island's law has pages and pages of chemicals — from acetorphine all the way to 1-Pentyl-3-(1-napthoyl)indole, (JWH-018 and AM678) — that are banned, and expands those bans to each compound's "isomers, esters, ethers, salts, and salts of isomers, esters, and ethers whenever the existence of the isomers, esters, ethers, and salts."

It would take a chemist to know whether a specific chemical was banned. The state's one-page legal notice of the ban also lists complicated descriptions. Here's an example:

Any compound structurally derived from 3 (1 naphthoyl) indole or 1H indol 3 yl

(1 naphthyl) methane by substitution at nitrogen atom of the indole ring by alkyl, haloalkyl, lkenyl, cycloalkylmethyl, cycloalkylethyl or (4 morpholinyl) ethyl whether or not further substituted in the indole ring to any extent, whether or not substituted in the naphthyl ring to any extent;

San Diego is following a similar approach by outlawing 91 chemicals and classes of chemicals, meaning chemicals that have a similar structure to the drugs already known to be used in spice.

Jerry Yang is a chemist at UC San Diego and recently demonstrated what he called a "comically simple" test to see whether a chemical is similar enough.

Photo caption:

Photo by Nicholas McVicker

UC San Diego chemist Jerry Yang demonstrates a test to see whether two chemicals are similar, May 17, 2016.

He pulled from a shelf in his lab a glass tray of 96 tiny test tubes and said he'd mix the new chemical and the known spice chemical with a liquid they'd react with, and then would see if they reacted in the same way.

The test is easy, but Yang said what’s tough is where to draw the line.

"How are you going to manage that?" he said. "Are you going to screen every product in the world and figure out its biological response and then set limits based on what you learned?"

He worries about broadening the ban too much.

"If you ban anything that elicits a response, how are you going to manage banning things we didn’t intend to ban," he said.

Margaret Dooley-Sammuli, policy director for the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties, said the long list of banned chemicals could make people worry about accidentally possessing something illegal.

"You might know if you have heroin or cocaine. But how are you going to know if the carbon atom is on the certain part of the molecule?" Dooley-Sammuli said.

The city's ordinance also outlaws all Federal Schedule I drugs that aren't already illegal in California, which led one pubic commenter at the first City Council meeting to ask whether it would apply to marijuana if voters make that drug legal in California.

Dooley-Sammuli said state law would preempt city law, so that wouldn't happen. But she is opposed to another part of the city ordinance: its ban on not just selling but on possessing spice.

"I think it feels good to ban something. It feels like you’re doing something," she said. "But if your goal is to prevent harm, to keep people safe, then the problem with making possession a crime is that people don’t call for help when they need it or when someone else needs it."

She worries the City Council acted too quickly after the spate of overdoses last year, none of which resulted in death. No one has died from a spice overdose in San Diego County in the past year, according to the county Medical Examiner's Office, but some deaths have been reported across the country.

At the first City Council meeting on the proposed ordinance, Councilman Todd Gloria asked whether police enforcement would be focused on selling, not possessing spice.

"Can you tell me that that's where the enforcement is going to be focused on?" Gloria said. "Is that the intention of the Police Department and City Attorney's Office?"

San Diego police Lt. Matt Novak told him that officers would "focus on people selling."

"We wanted a comprehensive law covering everybody should we need it. However, our concentration will be on those who are spreading this dangerous drug throughout San Diego," Novak said.

But Dooley-Sammuli points out possession is still included in the law.

Turner with the City Attorney's Office said the new law will stop the cycle where the spice makers just change the chemical compounds. The law will focus on "what is it doing to the human body and protecting people in the city of San Diego from being that human guinea pig.”

Because with spice, users never know exactly what they’re smoking.

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