San Luis Obispo may join a growing number of local cities that ban the possession and sale of synthetic cannabis — commonly known as “spice” — and psychoactive bath salts.
The City Council will consider the issue Tuesday and, if an ordinance is passed, San Luis Obispo would join 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.
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.
Spice and other synthetic drugs are often marketed as incense or other non-ingestible products and have grown in popularity among young people as an easily accessible alternative to marijuana.
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, said Dr. Ken Starr, an emergency room physician there.
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 say it’s like an intense marijuana high, but there’s no smoking pot and dying from it,” Starr said. “With spice, you have kidney failure, strokes — that’s a problem. It’s like smoking fertilizer.”
He said the majority of those patients are in their late teens to mid- 20s, though he’s seen older patients who have prominent jobs. Ingredients in the products are difficult for employers to screen for, he said.
San Luis Obispo police Cpt. Keith 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.
Because the products are labeled as not safe for consumption, they are not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and manufacturers have been able to sidestep federal and state laws by altering specific chemical ingredients, Storton said.
San Luis Obispo City Attorney Christine Dietrick said the broadly written proposed ordinance will cover all of the products currently known to officials that are sold locally.
“(The proposed ordinance) is based on the best models out there right now,” Dietrick said. “There’s always the potential for (manufacturers) to evolve and evade certain laws. … There’s the option to come back and review the ordinance if needed.”
Managers for two local smoke shops contacted for this article said they thought the products were already illegal and have already stopped selling it.
The Atascadero City Council in May received a six-month update on the effectiveness of its ordinance and found the numbers of incidents involving intoxicated people decreased, though specific numbers were not available.
The same month, Paso Robles, which banned the sale of synthetic cannabis in January, sent officers on undercover compliance checks of local retailers and found stores had stopped selling it.
The Morro Bay City Council passed its ordinance in April, following the fatal crash in Cayucos that involved victims who had grown up in that city.