By Dylan Goforth
Phoenix Staff Writer
Synthetic marijuana is dangerous, even deadly, authorities say. It’s often illegal, and if it’s not, you can be sure state legislators are hard at work to make it unavailable.
But right now, you can go to a store, buy a bag and walk out – and not have committed a crime.
The reason for that is complex. Synthetic marijuana is illegal only if the chemicals sprayed on it are among the 180 or so that have been outlawed. Legislators will outlaw a specific chemical combination only to see a slightly different – but technically legal – combination sprout up almost immediately.
Muskogee County Sheriff’s Office Investigator Ryan Lowe said the synthetic marijuana problem has reached “epidemic” levels in the area.
“We see it every day,” Lowe said. “And right now, we’re behind the eight ball. Law enforcers, prosecutors and legislators are aware of the problem, but things move slow.”
One of the major road blocks for authorities is the time and effort it takes to determine whether a particular brand of synthetic marijuana is illegal. It’s not as simple as walking into a store and seizing illegal products.
“It’s not like meth,” Lowe said. “We can do a field test to determine if something is meth. With this stuff, we have to send it off to the (Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation) and wait for the results. It might come back as an illegal mixture, or it might not.”
Area law enforcers are attacking the problem in a number of ways. Eufaula Police Chief Don Murray said his town was in the midst of a growing synthetic marijuana problem when the department decided to tackle the problem head-on.
“I’d say every fourth or fifth person we were arresting had synthetic marijuana on them,” Murray said.
So the department joined forces with the federal Drug Enforcement Administration to conduct hundreds of hours of surveillance and multiple products purchases and tests at a store named High Street. The store’s owner, Jeremy Jones, was arrested and charged with multiple drug offenses. High Street is out of business, and Jones faces a preliminary hearing in McIntosh County District Court in May.
But Murray admits that the problem could arise again. Jones was arrested because products bought in the store by undercover officers were shown by tests to contain illegal compounds. Officers went back to the store and purchased more of the brand that they now knew was illegal.
“And that was pretty much the end of that,” Murray said.
But not all of the products in the store were illegal, meaning another store could sprout up.
“There were a number of products that tested negative for any of those compounds,” Murray said. “And they could have continued to sell those products; it just became such a problem for them that they didn’t.”
District 27 District Attorney Brian Kuester raided a number of convenience stores in Tahlequah and Wagoner that sell synthetic marijuana. He said the raids were part of an operation that might lead to arrests and charges.
Muskogee has had no such raids or arrests, although law enforcers agree the problem reaches from city limits to the rural county areas. City drug officers expressed frustration, questioning how to even attack the problem.
“Until there’s evidence of a crime being committed, there’s not much we can do,” Muskogee Police Lt. Andy Simmons said. “It’s dangerous, and we are concerned about it.”
As far as raiding the handful of stores in Muskogee selling the product, the officers expressed concern about possible Fourth Amendment violations. Until all synthetic intoxicants are made illegal to sell or purchase, they view seizures skeptically.
“What we can do is tell people to be wary of how dangerous it is,” Officer Matt Burleson said.
It’s illegal for a store to sell the products for the specific purpose of smoking — the defense is that yes, you will get high if you smoke synthetic marijuana, but that’s not its intended purpose. It’s supposed to sit in a bowl and smell good.
“If that’s the case,” Lowe said, “you can buy a stick of potpourri for 50 cents. Some of this stuff costs 40 bucks for three grams.”
Store clerks are wise to the battle, too.
“If they would say, ‘Oh yeah, this will get you high,’ that’s illegal,” Burleson said. “But they know that now, and they’re not going to give themselves away. It makes it difficult to do anything about it.”
Muskogee officials are seeking ways to solve the synthetic puzzle.
City Attorney Roy Tucker said that he hopes to be able to combat the problem locally while the state fights its own battle.
“I got a request from two of our council members, independently, asking me what can be done,” Tucker said. “We’ve found difficulties that lie in being able to provide evidence, as well as the expense of tests.”
Tucker said he and others are attending as many roundtable events and discussions as possible.
City Councilor Dan Hall, who also is Muskogee Public Schools’ police chief, is pushing to keep synthetics out of the city and the school system.
“We’ve been looking at some different places that have ordinances in hopes we can find one with some teeth in it,” Hall said. “What we’re going for now is the banning of any type of intoxicating synthetic inhalants. We’re going for a broader scope.
“We’ve got to quit looking for the individual drugs (that are outlawed by the state) and go after anything, like a bath salt or incense, that can even just be used as an intoxicant.”
Lowe said that until such a law is passed, authorities will always be lagging in the contest.
“The bottom line is, until it’s outlawed completely, we’re going to be running behind,” he said. “Hopefully, we can raise enough awareness to the point where everyone knows how dangerous it is and it slows down while (legislators) try to figure out how to make it illegal.”
Reach Dylan Goforth at (918) 684-2903 or firstname.lastname@example.org.