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Bill would ban basic compounds behind synthetic drugs like bath salts, spice

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PHOENIX – It’s become a pattern as state lawmakers try to address synthetic drugs such as bath salts or spice: Almost as soon as one recipe is outlawed, manufacturers simply change to a mix that isn’t banned.

Hoping to get ahead of that cycle, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee is out to ban the basic chemical formulas underlying such drugs.

“Imagine a Christmas tree. You can change one of the bulbs on the lights and it’s a little different, but it’s the same tree,” said Rep. Eddie Farnsworth, R-Gilbert. “This bill would just outlaw the Christmas tree.”

Farnsworth said that chemists have identified the most basic formulas used to create synthetic drugs. HB 2327 would ban those basic formulas so the substances are always illegal despite any alteration.

He said he avoided banning any formula that had a legitimate commercial use, such as the recipes for cleaning supplies.

The House Judiciary Committee endorsed the bill unanimously last week, sending it to the floor by way of the Rules Committee.

Sold by convenience stores and smoke shops, synthetic drugs are often labeled as intended for other uses – spice as incense and bath salts for use in the bath, for example. But instead they are smoked, inhaled, swallowed or injected to achieve a chemical high.

Experts say synthetics can be more addictive and dangerous than other drugs because the strength varies by product and even by batch.

Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk said the change would give her more flexibility to combat synthetic drugs. Her office sued retailers selling the substances and last year won a court order declaring the products a public nuisance.

With that approach, her office would have to start over if a new business begins selling synthetic drugs, she said.

“We’re hopeful that this bill will get around the manufacturers making a different substance,” Polk said.

Before the substances were declared a public nuisance, Polk said Yavapai County’s two hospitals averaged 20 emergency room patients a week who used synthetic drugs and often had to be subdued before they could be treated. The hospitals see fewer cases now, she said.

Kim MacEachern, staff attorney for the Arizona Prosecuting Attorneys’ Advisory Council, said the solution developed in Yavapai County wouldn’t work in a larger county such as Maricopa because there are too many retailers to address.

She said her organization supports Farnsworth’s bill but also wants lawmakers to address online sales of synthetic drugs to make sure sellers comply with state laws for purchases made by Arizonans.

A bill that failed during last year’s legislative session would have empowered the Arizona Board of Pharmacy to ban ingredients in synthetic drugs as formulas change. Farnsworth said he opposed it because only the Legislature should have that power.

Farnsworth called his bill a step toward a solution to synthetic drugs. But he noted that completely new drugs can surface, including a formula he heard of recently that’s derived from battery acid.

“We will never get in front of this, but we’re going to bring it in closer,” Farnsworth said.