Earlier this week, Governor Cuomo issued regulations and the New York State Senate introduced a bill that would criminalize the sales of synthetic cannabinoids. Recently, there have been several media reports of tragic episodes involving synthetic cannabinoids, such as spice and K2. Epidemiological reports suggest an increase in hospitalizations due to these substances. Synthetic cannabinoids are a class of cannabinoid chemicals typically sprayed over plant matter and packaged with names like "K2," "Spice" and "Green Giant." These are only the latest "legal highs" to come on the market that simulate the effects of prohibited drugs like marijuana, ecstasy (MDMA), opioids, cocaine and methamphetamine. In the past, as these kind of substances have been banned, manufacturers have simply invented new variations of the same substances to skirt the bans as well as for legitimate scientific purposes.
Statement from Kassandra Frederique, Policy Manager at the Drug Police Alliance:
New York needs to find effective, evidence-based strategies for responding to problematic use of these substances. Unfortunately, however, to date, the response from the media and from elected officials has been to employ failed drug war strategies and rhetoric. We know that further criminalizing the sale of synthetic cannabinoids, concentrated cannabis, and controlled substance analogues - as the emergency regulations and the proposed legislation do -- will do little to curb use, undermines the ability of the state to effectively prevent minors from obtaining these substances, and does nothing to increase public health and safety in New York State. Decades of marijuana prohibition has shown that criminalizing a drug and the people who use it does not eradicate demand and supply. The same holds true for novel psychoactive substances like synthetic cannabinoids.
While synthetic cannabinoids pose some health risks, largely because their chemical content can be varied and is generally unknown to those using them, various media have focused on rare anecdotes to portray synthetic cannabinoid use as both widespread and dangerous. These reports in turn have fueled knee-jerk policy responses from state legislators, undermining more sensible approaches. In fact, synthetic cannabinoids are used by a relatively small population, and severe reactions are the exception, not the rule.
Rather than curb the health risks of synthetic cannabinoids, criminalization is likely to exacerbate them by pushing risky behavior underground where people who need help the most are the least likely to get it. Nor is criminalization likely to curb use -- synthetic cannabinoids, "bath salts," and a slew of new emerging chemicals can be acquired through online retailers, many based in foreign countries - a threat that will not be removed if these products are prohibited in the New York. Criminalization will only make it harder to regulate these substances and harder for people who struggle with their use to get help.
In the last decade, New York has taken a new direction on dealing with drugs and drug use. With the historic reform of the Rockefeller Drug laws in 2009, New Yorkers rejected failed punitive drug war tactics. New York has developed a track record of adopting an evidence-based, public health approach to addressing drug use and reducing the harms associated with it. The alternative to banning synthetic cannabinoids and other emerging "legal highs" is effective prevention and harm reduction education, regulation, and control. Such an approach would prohibit synthetic cannabinoids, concentrated cannabis, and controlled substances analogues sales to minors, while regulating adult sales. For example, California and Maine have passed legislation that formally regulates and taxes adult sales of salvia divinorium -- another product with psychoactive properties -- and still prohibits salvia sales to minors. Under a system of regulation, the state can employ age controls, identification checks, product labeling requirements, as well as marketing, branding and retail display restrictions to reduce youth access - a strategy that has been incredibly effective in reducing tobacco use among youth. Regulating these substances keeps the market visible and under control.
As new potentially dangerous substances emerge, New York should also develop education strategies that alert young people to their potential health effects and which equip them with the skills and information they need to stay safe. Sensible and thoughtful regulation, along with comprehensive drug education, is the best way to keep these drugs out of the hands of young people.