The symposium addressed the growing proliferation of synthetic drugs, specifically synthetic marijuana, and the harmful effects on the community.
Synthetic marijuana products are packaged and targeted to teens, and readily sold at corner stores and gas stations to minors. Professional health officials have determined that synthetic brands of marijuana, when ingested, are more harmful to humans than regular hemp. The most popular brands of this classification of drugs are known as K2 and Scooby Snacks.
The audience consisted of a cross section of individuals, including ANC commissioners, youth, vendors, prevention centers, public officials and concerned citizens.
The program was divided into two separate panel discussions.
Discussion Panel 1: Public Health Realities, Implications, and Consequences
DC Council Chairman, Phil Mendelson, moderated the panel and stated that the DC Council has added the group of synthetic marijuana products as a “controlled substance” allowing for greater law enforcement and regulatory protection. Dr. Geoffrey Mount Varner, former Chair and Chief of Howard University Hospital Emergency Department, explained the breakdown of the physiological effects of these substances on human organs, with the use of two emergency room case studies.
The Director of Department of Behavioral Health (DBH), Steve Baron, emphasized that education and community awareness are vital tools to combat the increasing use of synthetics. He pointed to the department’s successful “Zombie” health campaign that describes how the use of synthetics will produce a “zombie-like” effect on people and pledged to continue the public outreach.
Melissa Frazier, parent and DC resident, gave a powerful testimonial placing into perspective local parents’ efforts to connect with DC government services for families struggling with dependency issues.
Discussion Panel 2: Mobilizing Resources and Implementing Targeted Strategies
The Director of Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency (CSOSA), Nancy Ware, moderated the panel. She noted that youth are a prime target for synthetic drug use and emphasized that public safety officials could serve as key allies with public health officials in the anti-synthetic drug use and sale campaign. She addressed how public resources are being mobilized to include targeted criminal investigation and prosecution, combined with regulatory enforcement activities, in addition to community service engagement.
Commander Melvin Scott, DC Metropolitan Police Department (MPD), detailed some of the criminal investigations/raids/seizures that have been conducted against the synthetic drug market. He indicated that DC corner stores and gas station markets have been identified as the largest retailers of these products. Commander Scott stated “There is no law enforcement-only answer to this problem,” and highlighted the need for greater community partnerships.
Gilberto Guerrero, Chief of the Violent Crime and Narcotics Trafficking Section of the U.S. Attorney’s Office (USAO), elaborated on existing partnerships with law enforcement agencies. He also addressed how legislative changes to the “controlled substance” list have aided in the prosecution of growing synthetic drug related crimes. Gilberto also provided the rationale behind the laws, stating that the chemicals in synthetic marijuana used to mimic the effects of the THC contained in marijuana are twice as harmful to humans.
Vincent Cohen, Jr., Principal Assistant, U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia (USAO-DC), detailed how active investigations directly address community concerns. He actively engaged members of the audience in addressing their concerns.
Eric Rogers, Administrator of the Business and Professional Licensing Administration, Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA), detailed some of the regulatory initiatives that the District government has enacted. The DCRA has implemented the Right Choice Campaign which targets stores, markets and vendors. The goal of the campaign is to get businesses to pledge not to sell synthetic drug products identified as “controlled substances” by the DC Council. DCRA does not directly regulate stores and markets that sell these products, but they will be targeting the package and display of these items with restrictive regulations in an effort to reduce their appeal to minors. DCRA employs a team of investigators that are specifically assigned to the synthetic drug market. Mr. Rogers encouraged the community to partner with the agency by identifying markets that target teens. He cautioned that there is sometimes a delay between regulatory action and a business subsequently being closed.
Panel Discussion Points
I. Synthetic drug health diagnosis and reporting:
a. The synthetic chemicals used to mimic THC in marijuana when ingested, are twice as harmful to human physiology;
b. Steve mentioned the YBRS Survey (I believe)– The district’s 18 year olds evidently use synthetics at 3 x’s the national average (confirm the data source)
II. Controlling sale and distribution of synthetic drug products:
a. The DC Council has placed a group of synthetic drugs on the “controlled substance” list, thereby allowing for greater law enforcement and regulatory action;
b. DCRA has enacted the Right Choice Campaign targeting vendors to make a pledge not to sell products identified as “controlled substances”; and
c. DCRA is targeting synthetics packaging and display in an effort to reduce their appeal to (and access) by minors.
III. Community involvement:
a. Health and justice agencies have identified synthetic drugs as a major concern and fully support law enforcement efforts;
b. Every ward has a non-profit prevention center to coordinate community outreach and to host prevention events. Engaging parents in the community was also identified as a key aspect of this outreach;
c. The CJCC, with federal and local partners, will continue to sponsor youth forums, symposiums and events targeted to engaging youth and adults in the dialogue.