San Luis Obispo will soon have its own rules prohibiting the possession, display or sale of synthetic cannabis and psychoactive bath salts — substances that are readily available in the city and online.
The San Luis Obispo City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to approve an ordinance that will allow police to confiscate synthetic cannabis, commonly known as “spice,” and other synthetic drugs, whether or not a sale has taken place.
Such drugs are often marketed as incense or other non-ingestible products. They have grown in popularity among young people as an easily accessible alternative to marijuana.
"I think our city is in need of something like this," Mayor Jan Marx said, noting the city's large youth and student-age population.
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San Luis Obispo police Lt. John Bledsoe showed the council photos of colorful packages that he said are designed to appeal to a younger crowd.
"They are man-made chemical compounds that copy or mimic the effects of illegal street drugs," he said.
Because the products are labeled as not safe for consumption, they are not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Manufacturers have been able to sidestep federal and state laws by altering specific chemical ingredients, police Capt. Keith Storton said in a previous interview.
"This stuff is really bad," San Luis Obispo resident Michelle Tasseff told the council. "They're very hard to catch because it can be designed in different formats."
Police and emergency medical responders say local incidents involving spice are infrequent, but the drugs are a threat to public health and safety, and federal and state laws have been ineffective in controlling the evolving synthetic drug market.
The effects of the drugs on users are well-documented: elevated body temperature, blood pressure and heart rate; nausea; anxiety; hallucinations; psychosis; vomiting; and serious dehydration are common symptoms among synthetic drug users taken to Sierra Vista Regional Medical Center in San Luis Obispo, emergency room physician Dr. Ken Starr recently told The Tribune.
Starr said patients suffering from aftereffects of the drugs don’t come to the emergency room often, but those who do come in a manic state of confusion and are sometimes violent.
"They are extremely volatile and you have to be careful with them because you don't know what they're capable of doing," Bledsoe said.
Storton said the department has made 18 arrests related to the products since 2011: nine arrests for public intoxication, four for being under the influence of a controlled substance, and five for DUI, two of which caused collisions. Storton said those are only cases where a person admitted to using the drugs or was found in possession.
"I'm concerned about the risks to first responders because these people can get out of control very quickly and escalate a situation," Councilman John Ashbaugh said.
He added: "The problem we have is a deeper cultural one — we want to make sure our youth are aware of these risks."
The new regulations will return to the council for final approval and then go into effect 30 days later. A violation could result in a misdemeanor or infraction.
With the new ordinance, the council joins Paso Robles, Atascadero and Morro Bay in banning the products.
Two of those cities passed laws after a horrific single-vehicle rollover crash near Cayucos in October 2014 killed a toddler and a teenager and seriously injured two other passengers. The driver allegedly was high on spice.