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Criminal Justice Update

New weapons take aim at synthetic drugs

The stories of synthetic drug highs gone bad are tragic.
An Ohio man, high on “bath salts,” was shot by police while holding his girlfriend at knifepoint. After using “spice,” a Texas man assaulted his housemates and beat, strangled, and bit off pieces of a pet dog’s flesh. A Louisiana man slit his throat in front of his family after snorting “bath salts.”

The Attorney General’s Office has stepped up efforts to fight the abuse and sale of synthetic drugs, which endanger users, law enforcement, medical personnel, and others. Here are ways the office can help local authorities:
  • The Bureau of Criminal Investigation can provide investigative assistance, including undercover agents, money for drug buys, surveillance cameras, digital recorders, and body wires. For help, call 855-BCI-OHIO (224-6446).
  • The Special Prosecutions Unit can assist in bringing cases, talk prosecutors through options, suggest expert witnesses, and provide sample motions and indictments. For assistance, call 614-644-7233.
  • Beginning in February, the Ohio Peace Officer Training Academy will offer regional courses detailing how to investigate synthetic drug cases and collect evidence against Ohio distributors. Courses will be listed at
“Whether it’s the users who consume them, the families that suffer the aftermath, or the law enforcement officers who must deal with both, synthetic drugs are destroying many lives,” Attorney General Mike DeWine said in announcing the additional assistance. “People mistakenly think that, because this stuff comes in what appear to be commercial packages and is readily available over the counter and on the Internet, it’s safe. It’s not.”
Tougher law takes effect
One new tool in the fight is a tougher state law. Attorney General DeWine testified in support of the measure, which passed the General Assembly unanimously. Aspects of the measure dealing with synthetic drugs took effect when Gov. John Kasich signed it Dec. 20. It builds on a 2011 statute that banned substances law enforcement and lab personnel were seeing at that time.
“Clever chemists stayed a step ahead of us. By just tweaking the recipe — adding several molecules here or changing several molecules there — chemists create a brand new drug,” Attorney General DeWine testified, referring to analog drugs that are only slightly different chemically than banned substances. “The synthetic drug problem is constantly evolving, and we can’t afford to risk falling behind.”
The new law gives law enforcement a much wider and flexible net to crack down on manufacturers, distributors, and users of harmful substances masquerading as “herbal incense,” “glass cleaner,” “plant food,” “bath salts,” or novelty items.
Details of new statute
The law creates the offense of trafficking in and possession of controlled substance analogs and sets uniform bulk amounts for determining penalties. This provides for easier calculation of bulk amounts and better guidance for courts. It also reflects the risks analogs pose: Their toxicity level is unknown, quality control in the production process is nonexistent, and they’re sold in locations and packages that can lead users to think they’re safe.
The only other change to the 2011 controlled substance analog law clarified language on affirmative defenses, placing the burden of proof on defendants rather than the state.
The new law also brings Ohio drug laws in line with federal laws concerning controlled substances by banning whole classes of synthetic cannabinoids along with many 2C compounds. It also bans a class of compounds popularly referred to as “bath salts” and some specific compounds in situations when information related to the entire class of those compounds continues to be developed. All affected compounds are listed in Ohio Revised Code Section 3719.41.
To address methamphetamine production, the law requires retailers to note ephedrine and pseudoephedrine sales in a national database, limit purchases per customer to nine grams in 30 days and 3.6 grams in one day, and have purchasers sign a log.
Medical experts concerned
Dennis Mann, M.D., a physician with Miami Valley Hospital in Dayton, shares the Attorney General’s concern about synthetic drugs. He saw a decline in emergency room visits for synthetic drug reactions after the passage of House Bill 64, but he knows other, more potent drugs popular in Europe and on the West Coast have made their way to Ohio.
“There’s another generation of synthetic drugs on the horizon. They are far more hallucinogenic, and I think will result in far more psychotic, difficult-to-control behavior as they become more prevalent,” Mann said. “Another problem with these medications is that they last a long time. We may have to hospitalize someone for several days or a week before they return to a baseline level of behavior.”
Distributors take note
The Attorney General sent a letter to retailers statewide in November advising them of the risk involved in selling synthetic drugs. Previously available at gas station and convenience store checkouts, the drugs are still being sold to customers who know what to ask for.
“Some store owners and employees continue to sell these drugs under the table, despite knowing how dangerous they are,” Attorney General DeWine said, adding this warning: “Anyone who sells or distributes these drugs should be prepared for both criminal charges and a civil lawsuit.”