By Caleb Taylor and Yasmin Tadjdeh, PA INDEPENDENT
HARRISBURG — The state House voted unanimously Monday to ban a series of synthetic drugs, as lawmakers spoke in defense of public health.
“There is not a day that goes by that we don’t pick up the newspaper, turn on the television or radio, and hear some near tragedy, or tragedy, that has occurred because of the abuse and use of these substances,” said state Rep. Jennifer Mann, D-Lehigh.
The legislation, SB 1006, adds a series of chemical compounds used as synthetic marijuana and synthetic cocaine to the state’s list of controlled substances. To be included on the list, a substance must have a high potential for abuse, no accepted medical use in the United States and lack medical safety, according to state law.
The chemicals, which can be found in some bath salts and incenses, can cause symptoms, such as strong hallucinations, that are similar to those present after using other illegal drugs.
The bill sets penalties of up one year in prison and a $5,000 fine for those caught in possession of the synthetic drugs and penalties of up to five years in prison and fines of up to $15,000 for those caught with the intent to distribute.
“Those who are making huge profits off of our citizens will finally be held accountable with the passing of this legislation,” said state Rep. Ronald Marsico, R-Dauphin, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.
While getting full support from the Legislature, the bill had opponents.
“This bill is merely the latest in a long line of bills that responds to drug abuse with criminalization. If the Legislature truly wants to address this problem, it must increase its investment in treatment programs for Pennsylvanians with drug problems,” said Andy Hoover, legislative director of the Pennsylvania chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.
The bill was supported by law enforcement and the District Attorney’s Association.
“We believe that (synthetic drugs) are a danger to the community,” said Sgt. Jack Lewis, a state police spokesman. Lewis said police lack specific numbers on the popularity of these substances “because we have no way of tracking usage yet. But you could definitely say we are seeing more and more cases of the use of bath salts.”
State Rep. Mario Scavello, R-Monroe, urged businesses throughout the commonwealth to remove bath salts from their stores.
“You will be saving lives,” said Scavello.
The bill previously passed unanimously in the state Senate, but it will have to be approved by the upper chamber again after the state House amended it to expand the list of banned substances.