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Cedar Rapids council targets synthetic drug sales as false advertising

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CEDAR RAPIDS — Sellers here of synthetic drugs with murky, changing chemical recipes that are falsely packaged as incense, potpourri, plant food or bath salts don’t need to wait for a big federal drug sting and investigation before they’re confronted by law enforcement.

On a 9-0 vote Tuesday night, the City Council approved a novel amendment to the city’s ordinance on Offenses Against Public Peace and Morals that will give the Police Department the ability to fine and criminally charge those who sell synthetic drugs based on false advertising, misbranding, verbal misrepresentations at the time of sale or overly high prices for something that is sold as something like potpourri or plant food.

Suppliers and customers also can be fined or charged criminally under the new Cedar Rapids law as well.

The city’s action comes as federal officials in the past year have raided storefronts in Cedar Rapids, Iowa City and Waterloo as part of a national crackdown by the federal government on the sale of synthetic drugs.

However, suppliers and sellers have been quick to change the chemicals in the synthetic formulations as a way to get around the formulations termed illegal in federal and state law.

Cedar Rapids’plan is impose penalties and allow officers to seize drugs without having to go through a costly lab test to determine exactly what new chemicals are in a product. A seller’s behavior is enough to allow the police to act under the city ordinance.

Amanda Grieder, coordinator for the city’s SAFE-CR nuisance abatement program, told the City Council last night that a Police Department survey completed earlier this year identified 119 police calls in 2013 in which synthetic drugs were involved.

The city has seen one death, five overdoses and seven committals for help because of synthetic drugs, Grieder said.

Martin Dwyer, executive director of the Mission of Hope, 1537 First Ave. SE, appealed to the City Council last night to adopt the synthetic drug amendment.

Dwyer said he has witnessed close up how a storefront down the street from the Mission of Hope sold falsely packaged synthetic drugs and the rolling papers into which to roll the drug for smoking. Time and again, he and his mission staff looked on as the storefront sold a bag of synthetic drugs for $30 with rolling papers only to have the joints sold for $3 to $5 a piece out on the sidewalk in the 1500 block of First Avenue East.

“This created an environment on the 1500 block of First Avenue that was just completely and always unacceptable,” Dwyer said. He said using the drug sometimes sent users into seizures on the street and necessitated emergency medical intervention.

Federal authorities closed down the storefront, and Dwyer said problems have all but vanished. However, he said without the city’s new ordinance amendment, a new business in a different storefront easily could start the sale of synthetic drugs again.

Council member Pat Shey asked if other communities in the metro area also were looking to take a similar step or was the city simply pushing the problem to its neighbors.

Grieder pointed to staff members from the Area Substance Abuse Agency in the audience, and she said the agency was looking to contact other cities about a similar program.

Grieder cited a University of Michigan study of drug use among high school students which found that synthetic drug use was the second most used drug after marijuana.

Police Chief Wayne Jerman last night called the city’s legislative move “proactive.”

Earlier this month, Jerman said didn’t want to see anyone else die or land in hospital because of synthetic substances.

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