Authorities start crackdown with new law in effect
A new state law making it illegal to possess or sell synthetic cannabis products has had mixed results in its first month.
On one hand, the law has given police a way to crack down on the sale of the product, which has been sold as incense or potpourri under brand names like K2 or Pep Spice at some stores in East Central Illinois.
On the other hand, like any other illegal drug, people have a way of finding and using it.
"Since Jan. 1, we have had (probation) clients test positive for 'spice,' and we are aware of individuals in the community being arrested for possession of 'spice,'" said Ellen Maxey, a Ford County probation officer. "We don't know where they're buying it. We don't know why it's still available."
Recently, Paxton police made their first arrest for possession of synthetic cannabis — a Class 4 felony punishable by up to three years in prison.
Paxton Police Chief Bob Bane warned that anyone found with synthetic cannabis will be arrested under the new law, which bans all structural derivatives of previously banned chemicals.
"Now if we catch you with it, we arrest you for it," Bane said. "And if it shows up in the schools, they get arrested."
Making sure businesses comply with the law and stop selling synthetic cannabis has been a goal of area police agencies in recent weeks.
In early January, authorities seized almost 2,000 packages of synthetic marijuana from stores throughout the state, including four in Vermilion County, in three undercover operations conducted by the Illinois attorney general's office and local law enforcement agencies.
Ford County probation officers have said some residents — mainly teenagers and young adults — indicated they were acquiring "spice" in Rantoul or Champaign.
Champaign Police Department spokeswoman Rene Dunn said a store in Champaign had been selling synthetic cannabis products but has since "committed to stop, even before the law was passed."
But since Jan. 1, Champaign police have received a report that a Campustown establishment was still selling the product, Dunn said. Police continue to investigate the report, she said.
"Our team is looking at it, and there could be a citation issued," Dunn said.
In Rantoul, Sgt. Marcus Beach said he is not aware of any Rantoul businesses still selling synthetic marijuana.
He said the "five or six" businesses that were selling it were notified of the new law upon its passage and were asked to destroy any product they still had in stock.
"It was up to them to destroy that stock," Beach said. "And to the best of my knowledge, no businesses are illegally selling this."
Beach said Rantoul police have made no arrests for possession of "spice" under the new law.
Meanwhile, the Illinois attorney general's office has been holding seminars to educate law enforcement and prosecutors about the new law.
The attorney general's office has also distributed legal notices to inform retailers, said Maura Possley, deputy press secretary.
According to Attorney General Lisa Madigan, synthetic drug abuse is on the rise, and poison control centers across the U.S. have noted a dramatic rise in calls about synthetic marijuana and "bath salts," another type of synthetic drug containing chemical compounds mimicking the effects of cocaine or methamphetamine.
In Champaign, police have been told of some people being treated at hospitals after using "spice."
"We work with the emergency rooms, and I know people who work out over there, and they've had several cases of people who have had reactions to it that they've treated," Dunn said.
In 2011, Madigan said, poison control centers nationwide received 6,890 calls related to synthetic marijuana use, up from 2,915 calls in 2010. In 2011, they received 6,072 calls about bath salts, up from 303 calls the previous year.
Madigan said the drugs are extremely dangerous because users don't know what chemicals they are consuming.
She also said that individual products can contain a wide range of chemical formulations and potencies, some of which can be two to 500 times stronger than THC, the principal psychoactive component of cannabis.
According to the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, at least 16 states have already taken action to control one or more of synthetic cannabis chemicals.
Though states, including Illinois, have implemented bans on specific formulas of synthetic marijuana and bath salts, drug makers can easily sidestep these regulations.
Manufacturers adapt simply by replacing the strain of a banned synthetic cannabinoid or cathinone with a newer version that is not yet on the market and not yet known to authorities.
According to state Rep. Tom Cross, R-Plainfield — one of the sponsors of the new law in Illinois — the legislation is intended to cover a large number of the many permutations, known and unknown, of synthetic cannabis, so that new legislation does not need to be continually enacted in reaction to the makers of the drugs adjusting their formulations to skirt the previously imposed bans.