By L.A. Williams, Correspondent
Christian Action League
RALEIGH — If Special Agent in Charge Ann Hamlin talks in her sleep, it’s probably about mephedrone or else synthetic cannabinoids or perhaps even methylenedioxypyrovalerone. Her role with the drug chemistry section of the State Bureau of Investigation has had her explaining the properties of these dangerous but legal substances to one legislative committee after another as lawmakers consider whether to ban them in North Carolina.
On Wednesday, the House Judiciary B Subcommittee heard from both Hamlin and Dr. Tom Penders, a Pitt County Memorial psychiatrist, as members took up Senate Bill 9, which deals with synthetic pot products like Spice or K2 incense, and a new version of Senate Bill 7, which would ban mephedrone and MDPV, chemicals often marketed as bath salts or plant food.
Some lawmakers were concerned that the bills, passed quickly by the Senate in early February, needed more work to make sure sentencing was comparable to that connected to well-known drugs. In particular they were concerned about the “trafficking in synthetic cannabinoids” section of Senate Bill 9, which would make possession of more than 35 grams of Spice or K2 a felony punishable by 70 months in prison and a $50,000 fine.
According to legislative staff, who also addressed questions during the meeting, the other punishments mentioned in the bill are consistent with Schedule VI substances, and those in Senate Bill 7 line up with Schedule I drugs like cocaine since mephedrone and MDPV have similar effects.
Just as she had reported to a number of other committees, Hamlin said Wednesday these substances, which have no known safe uses, are not only totally unregulated but very dangerous. She said some of the synthetic cannabinoids are reportedly 100 times as potent as THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol), the active component in marijuana. She also said K2 had caused hallucinations, severe agitation, elevated heart rate and blood pressure, vomiting, tremors and seizures among some users. As for mephedrone, she highlighted the “blue limb effect” associated with circulation problems caused by snorting or ingesting the white or brown powder.
Dr. Penders, representing the N.C. Psychiatric Society, said Pitt County Memorial had seen a tremendous increase in the number of people coming into the emergency department and admitted to the psychiatric unit as a result of the designer drugs. He said Louisiana was a hot spot for the substances that had made their way up the Mississippi and that Poison Control officials there considered them among the most dangerous they’ve seen in 40 years. He also mentioned problems outside of the medical realm that often result from users’ paranoid delusions that can lead to self-defensive and violent episodes.
“There seems to be a common story that people believe that there is somebody outside of their house trying to break in,” he said. “They actually see people there.”
Dr. Penders said MDPV is considered more powerful than mephedrone because it gets to the brain faster where it can cause acute psychosis. He also said users have difficulty breaking away from the substances once they start using.
He told lawmakers that many of the cases he’s seen do not fit the stereotype of drug abusers.
“We are talking about middle class people or middle class teen-agers who learn about bath salts on the Internet. … They go and buy it and try it because it is legal. They say ‘well, it’s legal so it must be OK,'” Penders said. “They’re expecting that anything they can buy in a convenience store is not going to produce hallucinatory psychosis or cause them to have some sort of cardiac event.”
“The fact that we are seeing all of these complications and the fact that these are legal substances totally escaping regulation by any FDA scrutiny or chemical testing puts us in a very, very dangerous situation,” he added.
Knowing that drug designers are, as Penders put it, “endlessly creative” in designing new drugs once their staples have been outlawed, Rep. Grier Martin (D-Wake) wanted to make sure that there was language in the bill to address similar substances so the Legislature would not have to continually outlaw one compound after the next.
Both bills include lists of formulas for what Hamlin and legislative staff attorney Hal Pell referred to as “backbone structures” and make clear that derivatives of the substances would also be banned.
Rep. Craig Horn (R-Union) and Rep. George Cleveland (R-Onslow), both of whom sponsored a companion bill in the House, urged the committee to move quickly on the matter.
“Are we going to form a perfect bill? Not going to happen. … But let us not sacrifice the good for the perfect,” Horn said, reminding fellow lawmakers that 18 states have already banned the substances, which are outlawed by all branches of the military. “The message has to be sent that this stuff is not legal, it’s not safe. And we need to send that message NOW.”
Rep. Cleveland read a report from Camp Lejuene that showed 161 court martials had resulted from use of synthetic cannabinoids in addition to many other punishments ranging from reprimands to discharge.
“The Naval hospital at Camp Lejeune reports on average that they have admitted one Spice-induced psychosis patient per week to the locked mental health ward over the past five to six months,” Cleveland said. “They stay two to three days before they are able to release them.”
He said the problem extends to the community where about a dozen new tobacco shops have opened up primarily to sell Spice.
“This is something that has to be addressed and it has to be addressed sooner rather than later,” he added. “We have to take some action on it or we’re losing a lot of kids.”
Rep. Paul Stam (R-Wake), chairman of the subcommittee, assigned Rep. Dan Ingle (R-Alamance), Rep. John Faircloth (R-Guilford) and Rep. Rick Glazier (D-Cumberland) to review the legislation with the sponsors and iron out any issues so that the subcommittee would be ready to vote on the bills on March 9.
Rep. Phillip Haire (D-Haywood) brought up the April 1 effective date of the bills and questioned if it was realistic to think they could be enacted in less than a month. Rep. Stam said the effective date, which was hotly debated in the Health and Human Services Committee, would be dealt with when the subcommittee meets again next week.