Politics & Government

Bill would strengthen Kentucky's synthetic-drug laws

Prerequisite is an example of the synthetic drugs that have become increasingly prevalent in Kentucky.
Prerequisite is an example of the synthetic drugs that have become increasingly prevalent in Kentucky.

FRANKFORT — A new crop of synthetic drugs sold in convenience and other stores as bath salts or incense is overwhelming Kentucky hospitals and police, officials said Tuesday.

A law introduced Tuesday would help strengthen the state's synthetic drug laws and increase penalties for retailers who sell the substances, said Rep. John Tilley, a Democrat from Hopkinsville and sponsor of the bill.

The Kentucky legislature has passed laws during the past two years that banned synthetic drugs such as K2 or Spice, a synthetic marijuana; and MDPV, a type of synthetic drug that is similar to methamphetamine and is commonly sold as bath salts.

The chemical makeup of those drugs has been altered to get around current laws. House Bill 481 would broaden the banned substances to include an entire class of synthetic drugs, not just compounds.

Under HB 481, drug forfeiture laws that apply to other illegal drugs could be used to prosecute people who sell synthetics. Retailers could be fined twice the amount of profit they made from selling the products. Retailers convicted of selling the drugs could lose their liquor licenses.

"Make no mistake, synthetic drugs pose one of the most serious threats in memory to our nation's public health and safety," Tilley said during a news conference at the Capitol.

He said the bill would allow the Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policy to recommend to the state which substances should be banned. That means the legislature would not have to continue to address the issue. That would help counties struggling to control synthetic drugs, Tilley said.

Henry Spiller of the Kentucky Regional Poison Control Center said 614 people have been hospitalized during the past 14 months as a result of synthetic drugs.

The ingredients in the drugs have not been tested, and the long-term effects are not known. People have come to emergency rooms with acute psychosis, paranoia, seizures and heart attacks, Spiller said.

"We've had people walking into rivers in January," Spiller said. "We've had heart attacks in 17-year-olds, 20-year-olds. Seventeen-year-olds do not have heart attacks."

In Marshall County, a woman who took a synthetic drug dropped her 2-year-old on the head on a highway and left the child there because she thought the child was possessed. Rep. C.B. Embry, R-Morgantown, said two teenagers in his district committed suicide after taking a synthetic substance.

The drugs are becoming more available. In early January, after a string of synthetic drug-related incidents in Franklin County, Frankfort police and the Franklin County sheriff's department raided six stores in Franklin County. They took away three SUVs full of synthetic drugs from those retailers, Frankfort police said.

The synthetic drugs are marketed and sold under various names such as Hollywood Energy and Marley. They can cost $20 to $60.

Many counties have adopted their own ordinances to make the substances illegal as the drugs are being altered more quickly than the legislature can act.

Pulaski, Lincoln, Knox, Laurel, McCracken and Warren counties are among those that have banned the sale of synthetic marijuana not covered by previous statutes. Other counties are studying the issue.

McCracken County moved on a ban after police documented 17 young people being admitted to hospital critical-care units for seizures and other problems after using synthetic marijuana during a 41-day period last summer, said county Attorney Michael Murphy.

The county approved two ordinances against synthetic drugs last fall. The laws have been a deterrent, and stores have stopped selling the products, Murphy said.

Magistrates in Lincoln County gave final approval Tuesday to an ordinance banning the sale or possession of synthetic marijuana formulations, county Attorney Daryl Day said.

HB 481 is scheduled to be heard Wednesday by the House Judiciary Committee, which Tilley chairs.

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