How long until the California Legislature Gets It: What’s Wrong with SB1283

Yet again, the California legislature makes a terrific blunder with SB1283, showing the electorate that they have no idea how to deal with the dangerous problem of synthetic drugs, in this case, synthetic marijuana and speed. Known as Spice, K2, or by a myriad of other names, synthetic marijuana has been a “legal” substitute to the real thing. Popular with teens and young adults who want to get high without running into legal troubles, Spice is actually little more than poison, leaves onto which all manner of chemicals are sprayed. Bath salts, synthetic speed, is also popular and just as insidiously dangerous for the user. These drugs are widely sold in head-shops and online, marketed directly to young people who are led to believe that they are “safe.” However, instead of making possession of the drug a reason to educate an individual or send them to treatment if their level of use warrants it, the drugs will now be illegal and subject to small fines for possession. We don’t need new crimes created; we need a humane and workable approach to substance abuse treatment.

The use of these synthetic drugs is a real problem and, to that extent, I agree with the legislature’s impulse to take action. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more kids smoke marijuana than cigarettes. As marijuana legalization (and decriminalization) efforts are successful around the nation, young people believe, erroneously, that marijuana is “safe.” While it is clear that attitudes about marijuana are changing, there has been a great deal of research done showing that marijuana has significant negative impacts on the brain development of teens. Yet, synthetic cannabinoids are even worse for young people than the real thing. Forbes magazine tells the story that too few young people would like to believe, that Spice does not generally give the same effect as marijuana, a mellow, relaxed high. When describing how using Spice can feel in the short term, Forbes reporters tell us:

Not good, according to what users tell therapists and reports turning up on addiction blogs. Unlike weed, which in general causes relaxation and positive feelings, Spice causes: acute anxiety or paranoia, panic attacks, a feeling of alienation/disassociation from the world, hallucinations, constant coughing, feelings of nausea or actual vomiting,  inability to hold a thought for longer than a few seconds, irregular heart beat/palpitations, loss of concentration, psychotic episodes, tremors or seizures.

Bath salts, the most common street name for synthetic speed, is at least as bad if not worse than Spice. Bath salts are designed to give a high similar to a combination of methamphetamine, MDMA (ecstasy) and hallucinogens like LSD. In fact:

Like cocaine, meth, and speed, bath salts work by stimulating the central nervous system, kicking it into overdrive, if you will. But the drug also apparently causes paranoid delusions and/or hallucinations. Experts are saying it’s psychoactive, rather than hallucinogenic like acid, but the end result appears to be similar: delusional beliefs acted upon in violent ways.

With drugs so horrible for the health, it’s no surprise that the California legislature wishes to take action. The problem is that criminalizing these substances and making those who possess them subject to a fine does nothing to curb their use. Have we learned nothing at all from the “war on drugs”? It is really the best use of resources to put those in possession of these poisons in front of a judge and waste what I believe will amount to countless millions of dollars in court costs when instead, we could provide education and/or treatment to those in need? Wouldn’t a better use of our resources be an education campaign, along the lines of that which has reduced smoking (tobacco) significantly? What kind of deterrent is a $250 fine for possession?

As we march slowly toward the legalization of marijuana in more and more states, it is time that our legislators catch up with the times. The war on drugs is a failed experiment. Instead of creating new possession crimes, let’s treat individuals with substance abuse issues with humanity and compassion, providing treatment instead of punishment. SB1283 is the wrong approach to a serious problem.

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Richard Taite is founder and CEO of Cliffside Malibu, offering evidence-based, individualized addiction treatment based on the Stages of Change model. He is also co-author with Constance Scharff of the book Ending Addiction for Good.