Smoked: lawmakers ban synthetic marijuana

Matt Birch

Capital News Service

When synthetic marijuana first hit Virginia stores in 2006, its popularity spiked among teenagers.

Now, because of legislation moving toward approval in the General Assembly, the legality of the chemical-based substance may be going up in smoke.

Under House Bill 1434, which passed the House of Delegates by a 98-0 vote on Monday, Virginia would criminalize synthetic marijuana and classify it as a Schedule 1 drug, grouping it with marijuana.

The Senate unanimously approved a similar proposal last week.

Synthetic marijuana may look like the real thing and mimic tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive ingredient in cannabis. But the substance is not structurally similar to THC. It is actually a concoction of herbs and spices sprayed with a synthetic compound.

“It is used as an alternative to an illegal drug in order to circumvent the laws of our land, our country, our commonwealth and our people,” said Delegate Scott Garrett, R-Lynchburg.

Garrett is a chief sponsor (along with fellow Republican delegates Glenn Oder of Newport News and Todd Gilbert of Woodstock) of HB 1434. The measure was co-sponsored by 52 other delegates.

HB 1434 was among eight bills introduced in the House this legislative session targeting synthetic marijuana. Most of the other proposals were folded into HB 1434. Under the bill, possession of any quantity of synthetic marijuana would be a Class 1 misdemeanor, which can draw up to a year in jail and a $2,500 fine.

Advertised as “herbal incense,” synthetic marijuana is commonly sold under brand names such as “Spice” and “K2.” Across the country, 13 states have outlawed the substance.

Such products are sold in gas stations, convenience stores and head shops throughout Virginia. There is no age limit for buyers.

Oder said synthetic marijuana is very dangerous. He said it has had “devastating effects on the users such as paranoia, anxiety, hallucinations, rapid heart beat and psychological disorders.”

In severe cases, synthetic marijuana can cause seizures, coma or even death, officials said.

Besides the legislation in the House, eight bills were filed in the Senate to criminalize such products. Most of them were incorporated into Senate Bill 745, sponsored by Sen. Mark Herring, D-Leesburg.

On Friday, the Senate passed SB 745 on a 37-0 vote.
The bill would classify possession of less than one-half ounce of synthetic marijuana as a Class 1 misdemeanor. Possession of one half-ounce to 5 pounds of the substance would be a Class 5 felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison.

Unlike HB 1434, the Senate bill would not classify synthetic marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug.

The two bills will effectively switch places on Wednesday after “crossover” at the General Assembly. That’s when the House considers legislation passed by the Senate and the Senate takes up legislation passed by the House.

Gov. Bob McDonnell has voiced support for outlawing synthetic marijuana. He said such legislation would “protect the health and safety of all Virginians.”

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