Pubdate: Thu, 22 Nov 2012
Source: Johnston Sun Rise (RI)
Copyright: 2012 Beacon Communications
Author: Kim Kalunian


When state legislators convene after the first of the year, they will
again face a bill to legalize organic marijuana and a new measure to
ban its synthetic counterpart.

Representative Edith Ajello (D-Dist. 3, Providence) is the sponsor of
legislation for the third session in a row that would legalize pot in
Rhode Island, while Rep. Joseph McNamara (D-Dist. 19, Warwick,
Cranston) is drafting legislation to ban the sale of synthetic
marijuana and bath salts.

Ajello's bill, which would make marijuana legal and impose
restrictions on the sale of the drug similar to those for alcohol, was
heard last year in committee but was never voted on. Ajello said she's
unsure if it will make it to a vote this session either.

Ajello said legalizing marijuana would reduce criminal activity, both
in Mexico, where the drug is harvested and exported, and here, where
it's sold illegally on the street. Ajello said her biggest concern is
making sure children and teens don't have easy access to it, something
she sees as being a problem now. Quality control and regulations of
both the manufacturing and sale of the drug would eliminate street
sales and prevent young people from getting their hands on it, said

She also sees it as a potential revenue source for the

"It could be taxed at both the wholesale and retail point," she

Ajello said polls show people have the same opinion about marijuana as
they do about alcohol: if used responsibly, they're both safe. A
Rasmussen poll released in the spring showed 56 percent of Americans
favor legalizing pot, which is up considerably from a Pew Research
Poll conducted in 2010 showing 41 percent support.

Although marijuana legalization is traditionally unpopular with
Republicans, Rep. Brian Newberry, the House Minority Leader, will
again co-sponsor the bill.

Ajello said Newberry's co-sponsorship is a "measure of the breadth of
support" the bill has received.

Because she's not sure if the bill will be put to a vote this session,
Ajello isn't putting a timeframe on the legalization of marijuana in
Rhode Island. She said she could see it being a ballot referendum but
is sure the question would be wordy and lengthy. She thinks that,
especially in the wake of Colorado's and Washington's legalization of
marijuana, more and more states will legalize the drug.

But Rep. McNamara says Rhode Island still has "a long way to go" when
it comes to legalizing pot. He said it was a 10-year process to come
to the current terms for medical marijuana and sees a similar long
road ahead for the drug's legalization. He said he would have to have
a variety of questions answered about specific regulations of the drug
before he would vote in favor of the bill.

So while Ajello is working to make organic marijuana legal, McNamara
is striving to ensure that synthetic pot is not. He said he was
inspired to draft this legislation when two students at the Pawtucket
school he works at were caught smoking. When he confronted them, they
confessed they had been smoking K2.

"I Googled it," said McNamara of the alphanumerical drug name. "I
thought [the students] were talking about a peak in the Himalayas. I
was shocked to find it was a very dangerous form of synthetic
marijuana," he said.

K2 is popular because it doesn't show up in drug tests and it's easy
to obtain. McNamara's students plainly explained to him, "It's legal."

"It's sold up and down Warwick Avenue," he said.

That's what he wants to put an end to.

In July 2012 President Barack Obama signed into law a federal ban on
bath salts and synthetic cannabis, as well as other compounds that
produce similar affects. Both bath salts and synthetic pot are
currently listed as Schedule I drugs, or those without a known
medicinal purpose that are highly abused.

Still, manufacturers of such drugs come up with new chemical
combinations extremely frequently, and by skirting around the precise
combination of chemicals currently deemed illegal, they create a
loophole through which to legally sell and distribute the drugs they
concoct. McNamara said the key is changing the language on the books.

"The bill would prohibit the sale of a substance with a chemical
structure similar to that of a controlled substance and is
specifically designed to produce the effect of the controlled
substance," he said.

Basically, by creating an umbrella that covers all synthetic forms of
recreational drugs, McNamara believes Rhode Island can crack down on
the sale of such substances once and for all.

McNamara, who serves as the chairman for the House Committee on
Health, Education and Wellness, said he has been doing some research
into these manmade drugs.

Unlike prescription or over-the-counter medications, regulations for
manufacturing synthetic marijuana and bath salts are ersatz. McNamara
said that, in the case of synthetic marijuana, manufacturers take an
innocuous weed and spray it with the chemical they've created to
achieve the desired high. But sometimes, parts of the weed receive a
higher concentration of the chemical than others, making it hard for
the user to control their intake of the drug. He also said some
experts have found that the strength of these synthetic products can
be up to 100 times more powerful than organic THC, the compound found
in cannabis.

Many of these synthetic substances are marketed and sold as "herbal
incense," "potpourri" or "botanical sachet" at convenience stores and
gas stations. The packaging on these legal synthetic drugs is slightly
different from the potpourri sold at home decor stores, and synthetic
cannabinoids are often sold by the ounce or gram.

But unlike its organic counterpart, synthetic marijuana has been known
to cause violence, deliriousness, high blood pressure, vomiting,
serious health complications and even death. McNamara said those with
a certain genetic predispositions are more vulnerable to such side
effects. He said one of his students began using synthetic marijuana
and had to be admitted to a psychiatric hospital.

"He'll never be the same," he said. "It's just a tragedy."

McNamara plans to draw inspiration from a 2011 New Jersey statute with
language that accounts for all newly reconfigured drugs. He expects to
file the bill prior to the Jan. 1 start of the legislative session.
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