Muriel Bowser‘s crusade against the sale of synthetic drugs continues.

This afternoon, the mayor signed a “bold” new law to up penalties that can be levied against convenience stores and gas stations that sell K2, Spice, Scooby Snax, and Bizzaro, synthetic drugs whose side effects include hallucinations, paranoia, and rapid heart rate.

The Sale of Synthetic Drugs Emergency Amendment Act of 2015 gives the Metropolitan Police Department the authority to close any business found selling the drugs for 96 hours. It also establishes a $10,000 fine for first-time offenders. Second-time offenders can lose their business license.

“I don’t want anyone to be fooled,” Bowser said. “These chemicals are nothing like marijuana.”

Officials have linked the drugs, which can look like incense or concentrated liquid, to a recent spike in violent crime. Kevin Sutherland, a 24-year-old American University graduate, died after he was stabbed more than 30 times on a Metro train early this month, allegedly, by an 18-year-old believed to have been high on synthetic marijuana. The same week, 24-year-old LaTonya Cooper allegedly left a baby in its stroller unattended along E Street NW; Cooper was also thought to have taken synthetic drugs.

“Make no mistake,” MPD Chief Cathy Lanier said. “These drugs are not just dangerous to the people who use them, but they’re also dangerous to everyone around them.”

D.C. Department of Health Director LaQuandra Nesbitt said that standard drug tests don’t detect synthetic cannabinoids. That means MPD officers have relied heavily on witness testimony at the scene to determine what prompted an attack.

“I’ll say this very generally, because we’re not testing folks in those cases, the police department doesn’t get involved in that. Much of the information we receive is through witnesses that will suggest that folks are using that substance before they’re involved in violent criminal behavior,” Assistant Chief Peter Newsham said. He would not comment on Sutherland’s death specifically.

While it’s illegal in the District to possess synthetic drugs, Newsham said charging those in possession of the drugs at the street level is a “testing issue,” which the Drug Enforcement Agency will handle. Newsham says that if MPD officers establish through testing that synthetic cannabinoids exist in what they seize, MPD can retroactively charge the person in possession of it. It would be a drug charge equivalent to the distribution of heroin or cocaine.

“The DEA has told us they will be able to do that kind of testing, but it doesn’t happen as quickly as we’d like,” Newsham said.

Newsham said he does not know when the DEA will be able to begin testing for synthetic cannabinoids, but Nesbitt announced that emergency room doctors in D.C. will have access to synthetic marijuana-specific drug tests as early as next week.

“We have to put our heads together and figure out a national strategy for this,” Lanier said. “We don’t want to go back to the crack cocaine days when people are addicted to dangerous drugs.”

Photo by Morgan Baskin