LINCOLN — Kali Smith says she has personally told the story of how synthetic marijuana played a role in her son’s death to more than 50,000 people over the past three years.
She told it again Thursday to a panel of Nebraska lawmakers. But this time, she walked away more hopeful than ever about an opportunity to prevent future tragedies linked to the lethal drug.
“I think this will really stop the use of synthetic drugs,” the Bellevue woman said Thursday after testifying before the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee.
Often called K2, spice or incense, synthetic marijuana consists of dried vegetation sprayed with chemical compounds that are supposed to mimic the effects of pot. Use of the drug has been linked to dozens of deaths and thousands of emergency room visits across the country, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Yet the Legislature’s attempts to outlaw the drug have been stymied by manufacturers who tweak the chemical composition so their products no longer precisely match what’s banned under the law.
Legislative Bill 1009 tries to tighten the noose on K2 retailers by outlawing the sale of any substance packaged or marketed like synthetic marijuana. The look-alike approach also includes a provision to allow civil fines on sellers with the goal of putting them out of business.
“The intent of this bill is to take K2 off the shelves and keep it off the shelves,” said Sen. Matt Williams of Gothenburg, the sponsor of the legislation.
Williams and Sen. Beau McCoy of Omaha organized a working group last year to come up with a more effective way to cut the supply of synthetic marijuana. More than 20 professionals participated in the working group, including law enforcement officers, prosecutors, defense lawyers, chemists and others.
Retailers of synthetic marijuana often try to skirt the law by claiming that their products are incense or potpourri not intended for human consumption. The legislation would give police the ability to seize products that look like K2, even if the seller claims they are something else.
Indiana and Alaska have passed similar look-alike laws. Last fall, the Indiana Supreme Court upheld that state’s law as constitutional.
The Nebraska bill defines look-alike substances as products with one of eight characteristics related to how they are packaged, advertised or sold. For example, the bill allows police to seize stuff in packaging that implies that the user will get high or that claims to comply with federal or state law. Police also could target products priced higher than what is normally charged for the incense or potpourri that they purport to be.
Rather than trying to stay ahead of what the clandestine chemists are producing, authorities need a way to eradicate the drug as soon as it hits the shelves under a different name or label, Williams said.
The bill does not increase penalties for users of the drug. But retailers would face a felony with a maximum sentence of two years in prison and a $10,000 fine. And they could be fined up to $2,000 for each violation of the Uniform Deceptive Trade Practices Act, said Corey O’Brien, prosecution chief for the Nebraska Attorney General’s Office.
“This is not a drug bill,” he testified. “This is a consumer fraud, a consumer misrepresentation bill.”
Lincoln Police Chief Jim Peschong told the committee that, over the course of a few days early last year, more than 100 people in Lincoln sought medical treatment for synthetic marijuana overdoses and that one of those people nearly died of a heart attack.
In response, local and federal investigators worked together to shut down a major K2 retailer. Three people were indicted in federal court, and authorities seized 1,200 packets of K2 and hundreds of thousands of dollars in assets derived from sales of the drugs.
As a result, synthetic marijuana problems have been sharply reduced, Peschong said. He said he was testifying in support of the bill because it would give local agencies the sort of tools available to federal authorities.
Spike Eickholt of the Nebraska Criminal Defense Attorneys Association said his organization had a seat at table of the working group. He testified in support of the bill, saying it makes sense to go after the dealers rather than increase penalties for users.
Sen. Colby Coash of Lincoln asked whether the bill would allow for the prosecution of those who sell the drug over the Internet. Prosecutors at the hearing said it could, but only if the seller or manufacturer were located in Nebraska.
Kali Smith said her 18-year-old son, Tyler, killed himself in 2012. In his pocket was a packet of synthetic marijuana. More packets and a pipe were found in his car.
She learned that the drug was sold to him as cherry-flavored tobacco from a now-closed head shop in Bellevue.
“Tyler was gone in the most painful and traumatic way possible,” she said.
To teach parents and children about the dangers of synthetic marijuana, Smith and her family founded the Tyler J. Smith Purple Project. When she’s not making public appearances, she advocates for smarter approaches to cutting the flow of synthetic marijuana into communities.
“This is where we need to attack them and make them accountable for what they’re selling,” she said.
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