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Legislators, law enforcement back synthetic pot ban

Sen. Katie Sieben, DFL-Cottage Grove, and Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, were joined by Twin Cities law enforcement officials Wednesday when discussing a proposal to ban synthetic marijuana in Minnesota. Jon Avise photo.

State legislators and Twin Cities law enforcement officials want to ban synthetic marijuana, a chemical they say is being used by teenagers statewide in increasing numbers and with dangerous effects.

The lab-manufactured substance is currently legal to sell and possess in the state. But its use has led to a nationwide spike in calls to poison control centers this year, and state law enforcement officials can't do anything to stop its growth as a "designer drug" under current laws.

Sen. Katie Sieben, DFL-Cottage Grove, said the sale and use of synthetic marijuana presents "a very serious problem." Sieben and Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, said at a news conference Wednesday they will introduce a bill during the 2011 legislative session that would classify the chemical as a Schedule I drug alongside heroin, marijuana and LSD. That would make it a crime to possess or sell synthetic marijuana products and could carry penalties of up to 20 years behind bars.

Synthetic marijuana is far more potent than the real thing, said Dr. Cody Wiberg, executive director of the Minnesota Board of Pharmacy. It works, he said, by simulating the impact of THC, the active chemical in marijuana, on receptors in the brain.

"Yet there's nothing law enforcement can do to stop the use and sale," Sieben said.

The chemical can be purchased in tobacco stores and convenience shops as herbal incense, and is often labeled as "Spice" or "K2." It was "essentially designed to be used in experiments in lab rats," Wiberg said. But law enforcement officials from Cottage Grove and Hastings said at Wednesday's news conference that hasn't stopped it from growing in popularity in theirs and other cities.

"This is like playing Russian roulette with chemicals," said Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom.

The drug's side effects can be severe, including extreme anxiety and seizures. Earlier this year, a 14-year-old Hastings boy went into a coma after using the drug. Sieben said Wednesday that incident spurred her to act.

Hastings Police Chief Paul Schnell said his city explored a city ordinance banning the drug. But Schnell said it's difficult to enforce a ban if surrounding communities don't follow suit.

To be effective, a synthetic marijuana ban needs to happen at the state level, said Dan Schoen, a Cottage Grove investigator who was interviewed about the drug in a recent ABC News piece. Sixteen states have already banned synthetic marijuana.

"The one thing we can do is work with legislators to get legislation passed so we can do something when we encounter this at the street level," Schoen said.

McNamara, whose Republican Party will control the Legislature beginning in January, said he expects little resistance from other lawmakers.

"We intend to move this forward expeditiously," he said.