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‘Lookalike’ drug law may be new model

by Maureen Hayden, CNHI Statehouse Bureau Chief

In the quickly evolving war on synthetic drugs, Indiana has moved from defense to offense by passing ever-broader laws to combat a shape-shifting enemy operating in a legal gray zone.

Its newest weapon, a “lookalike” drug law, is unlike anything that other states have tried and may become a model law for the nation, according to national drug law experts.

But first it has to withstand a legal challenge in court.

At issue is Senate Enrolled Act 536, known as the synthetic drug lookalike law, signed by Indiana Gov. Mike Pence in early May and put into effect immediately under an emergency provision.

It makes it illegal to possess or sell products that look like the chemically enhanced substances banned under previous laws targeting products sold legally as incense or bath salts but that mimicked the effects of marijuana and cocaine when smoked or ingested.

“It’s a pioneering effort to get these dangerous substances off of store shelves,” said Heather Gray, research attorney for the National Alliance of Model State Drug Laws. “It could be a model for other states.”

It’s also the third synthetic-drug law in three years in Indiana, prompted by reports beginning in 2009 of poisonings, psychotic episodes and deaths among users, who are mostly teenagers.

The two previous laws specifically outlawed the manmade chemicals in products like K-2 and Spice, which had become popular alternatives to illegal street drugs. And they gave police and prosecutors the power to crack down on retail outlets selling those items by threatening to arrest the owners and shut down their businesses.

Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller said those laws made a dent: Across the state, hundreds of gas stations and convenience stores that are part of national chains pulled those products, and others like them, from their shelves.

“We didn’t get rid of it entirely. But we made it illegal and got it away from the candy bars and the cigarettes,” Zoeller said. “We wanted kids to know this is dangerous stuff.”

But it wasn’t enough. Indiana, like every other state caught off-guard by the swift emergence of synthetic drugs, couldn’t keep pace with what Zoeller calls the “greedy drug makers” who stay one step ahead of the law.