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The Office of the Attorney General has introduced legislation to the D.C. Council that it says will help curb the use of synthetic drugs in the District—a use that, data provided by the D.C. Fire and EMS Department illustrates, has continued to grow in the past few months.
The Synthetics Abatement and Full Enforcement Drug Control Act of 2015 adds synthetic cannabinoids like K2, Spice, “Bizarro,” and “Scooby Snax” as well as synthetic cathinones found in bath salts to D.C.’s schedule for controlled substances. It does so based on the class of the chemical compounds in the drugs rather than the individual compound in a specific substance. That means it would become much easier for prosecutors to go after “second-level manufacturers” like labs, corner stores, and street sellers who dole out synthetics: Under the status quo, it’s relatively expensive and time consuming for the Drug Enforcement Administration to test samples for a whole panoply of controlled substances, which current statutes require.
OAG says the proposed legislation will “minimize the necessity of enumerating specific synthetic drug compounds on [D.C.’s] Schedule I” list as well as free prosecutors from relying on “analogue” arguments to prove that a given substance has a “substantially similar” chemical structure as a banned substance.
“Synthetic drugs can induce immediate, psychotic and deadly reactions, and we must improve the legal tools we have to fight the drug so our communities and our children will be safe,” D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine said in a statement. “Bringing an end to the problem of synthetic drugs requires cooperation across agencies and jurisdictions.”
According to OAG spokesperson Rob Marus, one of the biggest dangers of synthetic drugs is that first-tier manufacturers in China and Mexico keep tweaking the chemical make-up of the drugs so that they’re difficult to test and users “don’t know what they’re consuming.” However, many of the synthetics contain the same basic compounds, even though they’re altered along the supply chain and packaged as “potpourri” or “not for human consumption.” The legislation would allow law enforcement to test for banned classes more efficiently.
Synthetic drugs continue to be a problem for medical professionals and emergency-response teams in D.C. Data from FEMS shows the District saw the highest number of synthetic-cannabinoid cases to date this year in September (the last month for which complete information is available): 611—up from 608 in August, 413 in July, and 439 in June. The agency averaged 20 patient transports a day that month, peaking at 34 transports on Sept. 18. The overwhelming majority of calls for synthetic drugs resulted in transports to local medical facilities: 603, or 99 percent of cases, which has been the average share of patient transports stemming from emergency calls people made since April.
The most recent stats also show a rise in the number of Advanced Life Support patient transports—involving ambulances whose crews can provide intensive procedures, or more than Basic Life Support units can. FEMS spokesperson Tim Wilson says the agency doesn’t know whether severity is increasing. “Our role is to respond to these incidents as dispatched,” he writes in a recent email. “In most instances, we don’t know the severity of the patient’s condition until we arrive and conduct an assessment.”
As the District gathers more data on the individuals who use and overdose on synthetic drugs, in part through emergency surveillance programs, it’s worth noting that FEMS personnel are already overstretched by the sheer volume of total cases they must respond to on a given day. “Both our people and equipment are overwhelmed on a daily basis,” Chief Gregory Dean said at a D.C. Council hearing last month. A few days later, the Council approved an emergency measure proposed by Mayor Muriel Bowser wherein the District may contract with private ambulance companies to alleviate that burden. (The private ambulances are being brought on to respond to the hundreds of patients each day who don’t need serious care.)
You can dig into FEMS’s synthetic drug data for yourself, below:
Photo by Darrow Montgomery. Screenshots via D.C. FEMS data