Synthetic marijuana possession was officially banned in New Jersey on Monday.
While the ban now makes it entirely illegal to possess and distribute the chemically-altered drug, which also goes by the street names "K2" and "Spice," one local law enforcement official said the permanent change may not have much of an effect on how synthetic marijuana posession is processed as a crime.
Kinnelon police Lt. John Schwartz said that synthetic marijuana is legally classified along with cocaine and heroin. Penalties of being caught in possession of the drug include a fine of up to $25,000 and a possible three- to five-year prison term.
With the ban, according to New Jersey Attorney General Jeffrey S. Chiesa, synthetic marijuana will continue to be classified as a Schedule I drug and possession, sale, manufacturing and distribution of it will be considered a third-degree crime.
"New Jersey’s law enforcement agencies now have the tools they need to shut down the sellers of these toxic drugs, and keep them away from anyone misguided enough to use them,” Eric T. Kanefsky, acting director of the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs, said in a press release.
The ban's permanency would not affect the way those found guilty of crimes relating to possession of the drug, which was once legally sold in New Jersey stores, would be prosecuted. But aside from the legal penalties, Schwartz said synthetic marijuana users could suffer physical ramifications.
"Synthetic cannabis is any kind of herb or leaf that's treated with a chemical that causes intoxication and we don't know what that chemical is, it could be anything," Schwartz said. "We don't know the long-term effects of the synthetic marijuana because it's so different. You don't really know what you're smoking."
Chiesa called synthetic cannabis "poison" and said the drug has "alarming and catastrophic side effects," which Kanefsky said include "seizures, hallucinations, panic attacks, and suicide."
"Despite these dangers, synthetic marijuana has grown in popularity," Chiesa's office said in a press release. "The 2011 Monitoring the Future Study, funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, found that synthetic marijuana is the third-most commonly abused drug by high school seniors, after marijuana and abused prescription drugs."
Schwartz said smoking non-synthetic marijuana can have negative health effects as well, some of the less offensive including burning the throat and nose as Schwartz said "when you inhale, it inhales hotter than a regular cigarette."
A temporary ban was put on synthetic marijuana in February in New Jersey after a national ban was put on the drug the prior December. but Schwartz said the number of arrests has slowed down since the national and temporary state bans. The permanent ban could have a continued effect in lowering the number of related arrests.
Bloomingdale police were unavailable to comment on the issue, however, in 2010,Butler Police Capt. Ciro Chimento said the department had seen a rise in usage of Spice and other branded synthetic marijuana in the years leading up to the bans. Since then, Chimento said police have not had a major problem with synthetic marijuana, but law enforcement efforts are not the only reason.
"In the past several years, the Borough of Butler has not had any major issues with these types of products for a number of reasons. In the past year, the Butler police had visited a number of business owners who strongly supported the recommendations made by the Drug Enforcement Administration calling for a ban of these types of products," Chimento said. "I must credit the Butler business owners for supporting the recommendations. They all realized how harmful these products could be to the youths of our community and elected to pull these products from their shelves early on in this campaign against drug abuse."
Chimento said the relationship between police and the Butler businesses helped keep synthetic marijuana out of the hands of young people.
Schwartz said it's not yet clear what, if any, effects the permanent state ban will have on local enforcement.
"We're going to have to wait and see," he said.