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County weighs options to fight synthetic drugs

Proposed action by the Washington County Commission against the sale of synthetic drugs would have little impact until state or federal legislation is passed deeming the drugs illegal.
“It’s no different than passing a local ordinance to say you can’t have political signs within so many feet (of a building.) It has no criminal teeth,” District Attorney Tony Clark said during the Feb. 16 meeting of the Public Safety Committee.
Clark said he met four times last week with representatives from the U.S. Attorney’s Office and local and state law enforcement agencies.
“We’re trying to push a bill through that would make it a felony to manufacture or sell synthetic drugs,” he said. “It’s all we can do at this time.”
The state’s earlier ban became null and void when manufacturers substituted the ingredient designated as illegal for one that is unregulated.
According to Clark, the synthetic drugs are not illegal substances in and of themselves. “They’re plant materials being sold as bath salts or window cleaner with a tag ‘Not for human consumption,’” he said. “They have no legitimate purpose at all, and are made to be fake meth and pot.”
Few anticipated how quickly consumer demand for them would grow, Clark said.
“It’s coming into the area by truckloads, and we can’t shut the businesses down constitutionally because (the products) are not illegal,” he said.
Some counties have tried filing nuisance complaints against the distributors, but since the drugs are not illegal, the efforts aren’t working.
Clark estimates local businesses such as Cloud 9 in Johnson City are bringing in between $14,000-$16,000 in daily sales.
“A kid 13 years old up to (an adult) age 70 can walk in and buy them. Cash sales only,” he said.
Sheriff Ed Graybeal agreed with the need for state legislation also targeting users. “There’s not enough law (enforcement) to control it as long as it’s legal,” he said. “You can arrest them all day long, but the next day they’ll be right back in the store. It’s a much larger problem if you can go to surrounding counties and buy it.”
Graybeal provided a copy of a letter from the State of Tennessee Office of the Attorney General that provides background information on the source of the problem:
“According to limited reports from United States and European law enforcement, synthetic cannabindos and cathinoes are synthesized primarily by chemists in foreign countries including the United Kingdom, China, India, Korea and Pakistan, among others. They are acquired over the internet and shipped directly to distributors or users. Further processing may take place in the United States by trained or ‘backyard’ chemists.”
Members of the Public Safety Committee decided to take action by recommending the County Commission declare synthetic drugs a public nuisance with the maximum civil penalty allowed by law, which would most likely be a $50 daily fine. The motion made by Commissioner Pete Speropulos was seconded by Commissioner Roger Nave and passed unanimously.
County Attorney John Rambo will include an injunction to close the business in the resolution for the commission.
Rambo will also talk with members of the County Attorneys Association to ask if any other counties are having success.