Friday, July 02, 2010

TOP STORY>>Health board outlaws drug

Leader staff writer

The Arkansas Board of Health met Friday morning and voted for an immediate ban on the sale and distribution of the synthetic marijuana commonly called K2. The ban became effective when the governor signed it shortly after it was approved by the board.

The ban was approved according to an emergency rule, which means it is only good for 120 days. However, the board also voted to begin a ban under the regular rule-making process, which could take over when the emergency ban ends. For approval under the regular rule-making process, the ban must go through a 30-day public-comment period and review by two legislative committees, the Public Health and Welfare Committee and the Rules and Regulations Committee, legislative sub-committees that represent both the state House and Senate. That process takes about 90 days.

Asked how a board overseeing a state agency can make law, Ed Barham, spokesman for the Arkansas Department of Health, said the Health Department is authorized to protect the public health and the ban on synthetic marijuana is not so different from rules regulating, for example, septic tanks and vaccinations.

“We have pretty broad authority when it comes to protecting the public health,” Barham said.

In The Leader’s coverage area, Austin and Beebe had already banned K2 before the board of heath ban was approved. In Cabot, the city council’s fire and police committee voted this week to send an ordinance banning K2 to the full council.

Manufactured primarily in China and named for the mountain on the border of China and Pakistan that is second in height to Mt. Everest, K2 is one of several brands of synthetic pot that was included in the ban. The drug was developed during the 1990s by a team of researchers working under Dr. John Huffman, a researcher at Clemson University in South Carolina who was studying marijuana as a treatment for the nausea and loss of appetite associated with cancer drugs, Barham said. A synthetic version of the drug was needed because marijuana was illegal. It was tested on mice and never intended for humans, he said.

Barham said the Health Department banned it because its potentially harmful effects, especially to children, are not known. He added that some users have ended up in hospital emergency rooms.

Paul Halverson, doctor of public health, state health officer and director of the Arkansas Department of Health, said in a press release after the Friday morning meeting that the new regulation represents a partnership with the criminal-justice system for purposes of enforcement.

“This new law is not intended to place people into the criminal-justice system,” Halverson said. “This regulation is intended to educate the public about the dangers of this drug and illicit drug use, especially by minors. Enforcement responsibilities will fall primarily to local law enforcement and prosecutors.”

Violation of the new law will be a misdemeanor, punishable by a fine of not less than $100 nor more than $500 or by imprisonment not exceeding one month, or both. Each day of violation shall constitute a separate offense. Every firm, person, or corporation who violates this rule may also be assessed a civil penalty by the board. The penalty shall not exceed $1,000 for each violation. Each day of a continuing violation may be deemed a separate violation for purposes of penalty assessments.

Dr. Joe Bates, deputy state health officer and chief science officer, said that the active ingredient in K2 does not show up on any standard drug screens in use today. “However, we have found a way to test urine samples from individuals who have used the substance that will indicate whether K2 has been used by someone or not,” Bates said. “Until now, we didn’t have a way to prove that.”