LINCOLN — In what has become almost a yearly exercise, state lawmakers were presented Wednesday with the latest attempt to outlaw the newest variations of potentially fatal synthetic marijuana products.
The Nebraska Legislature has dealt with the issue three out of the past five years — the ingredients used in the leafy “incense” products keep changing, so state laws must be updated to make the new chemicals illegal.
But the latest proposal, billed as a “catch-all” bill that would avoid the annual changes, drew criticism for not being specific enough and for being too harsh.
Legislative Bill 811 would make possession of such products a felony, rather than a misdemeanor infraction.
A representative of the Nebraska Criminal Defense Attorneys told a panel of state senators that while his organization is not opposed to outlawing dangerous drugs, the bill was too vague.
Chris Eickholt of the Lancaster County Public Defender's Office added that making it a felony would clog courts and prisons and harshly penalize first-time drug users who experiment with the easily obtainable synthetic drugs.
“We're going to make felons out of a lot of people who shouldn't be,” he said.
State Sen. Ken Schilz of Ogallala, who introduced the bill on behalf of the Nebraska Attorney General's Office, said he is willing to work with those with concerns about the language in LB 811.
But Schilz said that doing nothing is not an option.
“We know what happens when we do nothing. People die,” Schilz said.
Wednesday's hearing provided another sober reminder of the dangerous nature of synthetic pot, which is sold as incense and under names such as “K2” and “Scooby Snax Potpourri” via the Internet or at head shops.
Steve Tucker of Greenwood, Neb., whose 18-year-old son Billy, was found dead at a friend's home in October after smoking “Scooby Snax,” placed a vial of his son's ashes on a table before he testified before the Legislature's Judiciary Committee.
“This is who I'm fighting for,” Tucker said.
Kali Smith of Bellevue, whose 18-year-old son, Tyler, killed himself in September 2012, said kids often don't understand just how dangerous such products are because they can be legally purchased at local shops. Tyler had K2 in his pocket and his car.
“Every Sunday I visit my son at a cemetery because someone sold him a $4 packet of incense,” Smith said.
At least three young people died in Iowa last year after smoking the products.
Omaha Sen. Steve Lathrop said that if a way can be found to stay ahead of the drug manufacturers, the Legislature should pursue it.
Corey O'Brien of the Nebraska Attorney General's Office said LB 811 was drafted after interested parties convened to produce a bill that wouldn't need to be updated every year.
Current law already lists dozens of chemical compounds sprayed on the “incense” as illegal. But LB 811 includes a new “catch-all” provision that includes “any other compound, not specifically listed” that mimics or attempts to mimic the high produced by marijuana.
O'Brien added that possession of synthetic marijuana should be upgraded to a felony because it's now clear it is much more dangerous than marijuana.
“This is not marijuana. Kids are dying from it,” he said.
But Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers, who is often at odds with the Attorney General's Office, joined the defense attorneys in criticizing the bill for a lack of specifics. Laws, he said, must clearly state what is illegal and what is not.
Chambers called the bill “pointless” because it does not attack the root causes of teen drug use.
The Judiciary Committee did not take action on the bill after the public hearing.
LB 811 has 11 co-sponsors and has been picked as a speaker priority bill, which suggests the measure will be debated by the full Legislature.