Gazette Editorial Board
Community stakeholders fighting the use and sale of illegal drugs often find themselves aiming at a moving target.
That’s especially true when it comes to synthetic drugs, where with slight changes to chemical makeup, manufacturers can skirt laws intended to ban them.
So we understand why Cedar Rapids officials want to use their zoning authority to restrict new businesses from advertising, storing or selling synthetics. The approach may not be perfect, but it’s just about the only tool they have.
Nor is there much point in waiting for legislators to come up with the perfect legal language that will prevent drug manufacturers from finding new loopholes in the law. Effective legislation ultimately may prove impossible to craft.
We don’t oppose the proposal to use zoning and permitting to try to reduce the availability of synthetics in Cedar Rapids. But it has limitations.
Educating the public about potential dangers of synthetics, and getting parents engaged to help fight the problem, is probably the best way forward for now.
Synthetic recreational drugs, or synthetics, generally fall into one of two large categories: synthetic cannabinoids, created by applying chemical compounds to an organic substance, and synthetic cathenodes, which are powder or crystalline stimulants.
Despite their different physical properties and effects, they are similar in that they can be quickly manufactured and reformulated to be legally sold under an ever-shifting variety of brand names, Dale Woolery, Associate Director of the Governor’s Office of Drug Control Policy told us this week.
Synthetics have “ushered in a new era of drug trafficking and drug use,” Woolery told us.
“Not only do we have drugs that can be changed quickly and distributed and marketed quickly, people know about it quickly,” he said. “The speed with which everything happens is much more quick than 10 or 20 years ago, when we were talking about organic substances,” Woolery said. “It’s a whole new ballgame.”
Substance abuse experts say they’re seeing a steady increase in the number of Iowans — especially teenagers — admitting to using the drugs, which were relatively unknown only a few years ago.
“We’re definitely seeing an increase, year to year,” MECCA Vice President Shannon Greene told us this week.
MECCA, which operates substance abuse prevention and treatment services in several counties, treated 95 synthetic drug users under age 18 in FY2013, Greene told us, compared with 79 users in FY2011.
The consequences of ingesting these unknown substances can range from agitation, nervousness and racing heartbeat to more serious concerns, including hallucinations and bizarre and violent behavior — as dangerous as many other clearly defined illegal drugs.
Iowa lawmakers banned six common chemicals used in synthetic drugs back in 2011, but manufacturers simply tweaked their recipes to produce similar substances using chemicals not specifically prohibited by law. Lawmakers still are trying to figure out how to end the cat-and-mouse game — one proposal would make it easier to add chemicals to the controlled substance list, at least temporarily, in order to keep up with the supply.
“The legislative process is important, but it’s not going to be able to keep up,” Woolery told us,
“The zoning approach is one of those non-traditional, innovative ways that, if it’s done legally, is worth looking at,” he said.
THE ZONING PLAN
Cedar Rapids officials hope to combat the problem of synthetic drugs by amending the city’s zoning ordinance to prohibit new takeout alcohol and tobacco shops from advertising, storing or selling them.
The ordinance would require business owners to obtain a conditional-use permit to open any new shop in which alcohol and tobacco sales make up more than 40 percent of the shop’s business. The permit also would require the business to prohibit loitering, install video cameras and provide litter containers, and would restrict them from selling, storing or advertising synthetic recreational drugs, regardless of whether those drugs aren’t technically in violation of state drug laws.
The proposal, still under review, would expand on an ordinance that already prohibits alcohol and tobacco shops from being located within 300 feet of any church or school, further restricting such shops from locating near rehabilitation centers, emergency residential shelters, libraries, parks, rec centers, civic auditoriums and convention centers. It would limit the number of shops that could be operated within a quarter mile of a similar store.
Needless to say, there are limitations to that approach. Even if adopted, the ordinance would not apply to existing businesses or those that don’t meet the 40 percent threshold, leading some to question whether the ordinance would have any effect on the sale of synthetic drugs.
But it’s something, maybe the best thing that council can do, for now, to reduce the availability of such drugs and help raise awareness about potential dangers.
Too many people — including parents and teens — still don’t understand the potential dangers of synthetic recreational drugs or know how to recognize signs of their use. Making sure they do should be a high priority for schools, public health agencies and community leaders.
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