Lawmakers Aim to Take the “Spice” out of Synthetic Drug Use.

by Melanie Osborne & Meghan M. Kelly
Stoel Rives World of Employment
Stoel Rives Law Firm, Oregon

Alaska has joined the growing list of states that have outlawed the sale or possession of “synthetic cannabinoids.” These so-called designer drugs are sold under trade names like “Spice” and “K2”, and are essentially chemicals sprayed on dried weeds then rolled and smoked like marijuana.

Alaska’s new law, that you can see here, criminalizes certain chemical combinations used to create synthetic cannabinoids, in effect banning the substance. Possession of these chemicals is punishable as a Class C felony down to a misdemeanor, depending on quantity. The ban became effective July 1, 2011.

At least thirty states have banned synthetic cannabinoids and several others are currently considering such legislation. In March, the federal government issued an “emergency listing” under the Controlled Substances Act of five compounds used to produce synthetic cannabinoids.

What does this mean for employers?

Synthetic cannabiniods may look like marijuana, but their affect on users more closely resembles methamphetamine or PCP. It is reported that the drug can cause paranoia and severe anxiety, hallucinations, nausea, suicidal thoughts, and combative behavior, among other symptoms. Poison centers across the country had nearly 5400 calls related to synthetic cannabinoid use between January 2010 and May 2011. Employers need to understand these symptoms and their impact on productivity and workplace safety.

Drug Free Workplace policies that ban use of illegal substances or “controlled substances” as defined by the Controlled Substance Act now have the backing of Alaska’s law and the federal government’s listing. Designer drugs are a rapidly evolving market, and employer drug testing programs must continue to evolve as well. While drug testing companies can test for synthetic cannabiniods, few employers in Alaska have taken this step. Presently, testing for synthetic drugs requires a separate test from the ordinary panel and it is expensive.

Certain workforces may be more prone to use of synthetic cannabinoids, and it is important for employers to determine the needs of their company and workforce. The Air Force began using urinalysis to screen for Spice in February 2011 and other branches of the armed services, some of the largest employers in the country, have started moving in the same direction.

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