New York Wants to Criminalize Synthetic Weed. But Will It Make a Difference?

By Keri Blakinger 08/19/15

Some have criticized the pending legislation as an effort to reinvigorate the the war on drugs.

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The New York State Senate introduced a bill this month to criminalize the sale of synthetic marijuana, sometimes known as K2 or spice. The proposed legislation would create five degrees of criminal sale, ranging from a Class B misdemeanor up to a Class C felony.

Since 2012, New York Department of Health sanitary code regulations have banned the possession, manufacture, distribution, and sale of synthetic marijuana. However, up to this point, there have not been any criminal charges associated with those regulations.

For drug policy reform advocates, it is a troubling return to past practices in a state with a long history of draconian drug laws. “In the last decade, New York has taken a new direction on dealing with drugs and drug use. With the historic reform of the Rockefeller Drug laws in 2009, New Yorkers rejected failed punitive drug war tactics," said Tony Newman of the Drug Policy Alliance in a press release.

"New York has developed a track record of adopting an evidence-based, public health approach to addressing drug use and reducing the harms associated with it," Newman continued. "The alternative to banning synthetic cannabinoids and other emerging ‘legal highs’ is effective prevention and harm reduction education, regulation, and control. Such an approach would prohibit synthetic cannabinoids, concentrated cannabis, and controlled substances analogues sales to minors, while regulating adult sales."

One of the problems cited by DPA Policy Manager Kassandra Frederique is the response from media and elected officials, who have defaulted to “drug war strategies and rhetoric.”

"We know that further criminalizing the sale of synthetic cannabinoids, concentrated cannabis, and controlled substance analogues ... will do little to curb use, [and] undermines the ability of the state to effectively prevent minors from obtaining these substances," she said in the release. "Decades of marijuana prohibition has shown that criminalizing a drug and the people who use it does not eradicate demand and supply. The same holds true for novel psychoactive substances like synthetic cannabinoids.”

In a similar vein, DPA’s Stefanie Jones recently wrote a piece for the Huffington Post in which she criticized the media's coverage of synthetic marijuana, which has been sensationalized and at times, inaccurate. Jones cited comments by NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton as an example.

On Aug. 4, the New York Post quoted Bratton referring to synthetic cannabis as “weaponized marijuana.” Although Bratton illustrated his point with two videos of people running around frenetically, buck naked, the Gothamist later revealed that one of the videos was actually 2003 Cops footage of someone allegedly on PCP.

Even though some of the rhetoric surrounding synthetic marijuana has been problematic, Frederique acknowledged that there are some dangers involved.

“While synthetic cannabinoids pose some health risks, largely because their chemical content can be varied and is generally unknown to those using them, various media have focused on rare anecdotes to portray synthetic cannabinoid use as both widespread and dangerous," she said. "These reports in turn have fueled knee-jerk policy responses from state legislators, undermining more sensible approaches. In fact, synthetic cannabinoids are used by a relatively small population, and severe reactions are the exception, not the rule.”

“Rather than curb the health risks of synthetic cannabinoids, criminalization is likely to exacerbate them by pushing risky behavior underground where people who need help the most are the least likely to get it,” she added.

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Keri Blakinger is a former drug user and current reporter living in Texas. She covers breaking news for the Houston Chronicle and previously worked for the New York Daily News and the Ithaca Times. She has written about drugs and criminal justice for the Washington Post, Salon, Quartz and more. She loves dogs and is not impressed by rodeo food. Find Keri on LinkedIn and Twitter.