The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Bowser backs bill penalizing dealers of synthetic drugs as overdoses spike in D.C.

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) is proposing emergency legislation to crack down on drug dealers amid a spike in synthetic marijuana overdoses while a permanent version of the bill makes its way through the D.C. Council.

D.C. fire department medics treated or transported more than 1,600 people for symptoms consistent with synthetic drug overdoses between July 14 and Sunday, according to city officials.

The man-made drugs known as K2, Spice and Scooby Snax have been sold in stores and on the street as cheap alternatives to marijuana, which can be legally used in small quantities in the District. They’re also popular among people looking to pass drug tests, authorities said.

But synthetic drugs are more dangerous than natural marijuana, officials say, resulting in vomiting, oozing gums and violent outbursts. Three deaths were linked to K2 in August, and medics have taken dozens to hospitals daily since mid-September.

“This is not marijuana,” Bowser said at a Tuesday news conference. “The effects are very different, and they can be deadly.”

Large-scale synthetic overdoses suspected at North Capitol and O Streets NW

The mayor’s emergency bill would expand the city’s prohibition on synthetic drugs, which her administration says would make it easier to prosecute suppliers. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), who chairs the public safety committee, has been working on similar emergency and permanent legislation with the office of Attorney General Karl A. Racine (D).

The council already passed similar emergency legislation in 2016 during an earlier overdose crisis, but it expired last year.

“We had a very informative public hearing right before our summer recess to carefully consider what compounds to include and ensure it prioritizes law enforcement’s ability to go after distributors and not users,” Allen said in a statement. “This is a public health crisis for many DC residents and it should be treated as such.”

Prosecutors say the legislation is necessary because it would outlaw categories of chemical compounds in synthetic drugs, rather than individual chemical components that continually change.

“We don’t have to play catch-up after a new drug comes on the market; the category will capture the new drug,” Assistant D.C. Attorney General Argatonia Weatherington said in an interview.

Rash of overdoses shows dangers of synthetic drugs in opioid crisis

A spokeswoman for Bowser said the office wants a first vote on the temporary emergency bill at the council’s Oct. 2 meeting. Bowser and Racine say they want the council to pass a permanent version of the legislation.

“The manufacturers are quite shrewd; they know what’s prohibited and what’s not, and they know they can tweak a compound,” Racine said.

Synthetic cannabinoids, also known as K2, are man-made drugs often marketed as a safe, legal alternative to marijuana. (Video: Elyse Samuels/The Washington Post)

It’s illegal for stores to sell synthetic drugs.

A 2017 law enhances penalties against stores that sell synthetic drugs, allowing police to shut down businesses for 96 hours and the mayor to levy $10,000 fines for first offenses.

Authorities cracked down on convenience stores and others selling synthetic drugs in recent years and want the public’s help finding the ones still selling.

“If they know of a business, alert law enforcement about it,” D.C. Police Chief Peter Newsham said at Tuesday’s conference. “We can still take police action.”