TAHLEQUAH — As law enforcement officials work to minimize the consumption and abuse of controlled substances, they must always maintain a vigilance for new types of illicit drugs entering their jurisdictions.
One to emerge in the last decade is synthetic marijuana — also called K2 or spice — and its popularity in Oklahoma is booming.
On Dec. 5, Northeastern State University hosted a seminar dedicated to teaching law enforcement about synthetic marijuana and its hazards. Approximately 60 officers, attorneys and other professionals attended.
“We were very pleased with the turnout,” NSU Police Capt. James Bell of the NSU Police Department, who helped facilitate the seminar, said in a media release. “We had people from the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office and the Fort Gibson Police Department, and from as far away as the University of Oklahoma.”
Participants in the workshop included B.J. Baker, assistant district attorney prosecuting for the Cherokee County Drug Task Force; Cindy Farmer, director of the Cherokee County Juvenile Drug Court; Ken Harris, counselor for Tahlequah Public Schools; Mark D. Stewart, a seasoned agent for the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (OBNDD); Randy Tanner of the Tahlequah Police Department; and Robert Weston, an expert in chemical drug identification with the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation.
During her presentation, Farmer discussed the molecular compositions of some synthetic cannabinoids, how they might be recognized and applicable federal and state laws. She said the seminar, while educational, also permitted collaboration and the sharing of experiences between agencies.
“These substances are being seen all across the state of Oklahoma,” she said. “What better way to learn than to have discussion between law enforcement, the OBNDD, the OSBI, the lab guys, district attorneys and other people who see this on a daily basis. How can we apply the law in such a way that we don’t violate individual civil rights, but still protect the health and safety of the citizenry? We can pool our knowledge to deal with these issues.”
Synthetic marijuana poses challenges to law enforcement because it is sold over the counter, often in specialty shops, as incense “not for human consumption.” Such labeling allows producers and marketers to avoid FDA scrutiny.
Cost is one method of identifying spice against something more innocuous. As incense, it is pricey at up to $30 an ounce.
Attendees were reminded that current federal and state statutes addressing “synthetics” and “analogues” and the federal Synthetic Drug Abuse Prevention Act of 2012 classify most chemical compounds used in synthetic marijuana as illegal. However, field testing methods remain nascent and most agencies in Oklahoma must rely on lab tests by the OSBI when determinations are needed.
Bell said Northeastern and any college or university has a stake in discussions about substance abuse.
“For NSU, this is as much about the health and safety of our students as it is about assisting law enforcement,” Bell said. “Basically this synthetic marijuana, K2, spice — whatever you want to call it — isn’t tested. It meets no marketing standards. People are taking a weed and spraying it with chemicals. If you buy it and smoke it, you may get a triple dose or absolutely nothing because the part you bought wasn’t sprayed.”
While there have been few on-campus incidents with synthetic marijuana, Bell said it would be naive to assume there isn’t some use occurring among students.
“It is difficult to determine usage by our students because smoking is not permitted on campus,” Bell said. “However, we know these substances are being sold around town. We need to educate our students about the hazards.”
Farmer agreed that education was the first and best option to battle the dangers of synthetic marijuana.
“This seminar deals with educating law enforcement, but we also want to be able to use what we know in conversations with parents, students and anyone else who might come in contact with this,” she said. “It will take people working together.”