News 5 Investigates

Dec 18, 2013 8:26 PM by Eric Ross

News 5 Guardians: Bill aims to change synthetic cannabis laws

Lawmakers believe they have found a solution to close a gap in Colorado's system that allows illegal, synthetic drugs to be sold in convenience stores and smoke shops.

The sale of "Spice" or "K2" has been featured in a series of News 5 Guardian Investigations revealing loopholes in the law. Legislators say that's unacceptable and are now taking action.

One of the biggest hurdles right now is being able to hold convenience store owners accountable. The sale of fake pot is a lucrative business bringing in millions of dollars each year.

Nicholas Colbert, 19, of Colorado Springs, died after smoking what teens refer to on the streets as synthetic marijuana.

"This didn't need to happen," Nicholas' mom, Stephane said. "This should not have happened and it shouldn't happen to anyone else."

Colbert has since filed a wrongful death lawsuit against a Colorado Springs convenience store that allegedly sold her son synthetic cannabis.

As her case moves forward, her cry for help has gained statewide attention.

"Any time we hear of people dying in an untimely fashion, it's tragic," Sen. Irene Aguilar said. "When it's a young person and it's something we could have potentially prevented, I think it's something we as a state need to take a serious look at."

Sen. Aguilar would like to put a task force together to better educate convenience store owners about the harmful effects of synthetic cannabis.

"I think there might be convenience store owners out there who recognize something that's being misused, but don't realize the severity of the danger it poses to people," Aguilar said.

Hospitals across Colorado have seen a rapid spike in emergency room visits with three deaths so far this year linked to synthetic cannabis.

"It's a problem we can't continue to allow to happen in Colorado," Rep. Lois Landgraf, of Fountain, said.

Landgraf says convenience store owners selling "Spice" have been able to slip through the cracks for too long.

Sellers offer items with labels stating the product is "not for human consumption."  She believes that's the excuse sellers provide to limit their liability.

To eliminate the loophole, she's drafted a bill that would add the sale of synthetic cannabis to Colorado's Deceptive Trade Practices Act.

"It would be a civil crime and they could be fined between $10,000 and $500,000 per incident," Landgraf explained. 

On the criminal side, Thomas Raynes with the Colorado District Attorneys' Council would like to see police departments step up enforcement efforts and is asking that more funding be provided to them.

"You can't attack this issue without more law enforcement officers," Raynes said.

Another hurdle beyond staffing is testing to see whether fake pot being sold today contains any of the nine chemical compounds banned under Colorado law.

"The reality for the law enforcement officer is he's put in a position of whether to take this stuff off the shelf without knowing for sure whether he's got something illegal so it's important we get test results done quickly," Raynes explained.

However, those tests take time to get back.

"Police departments have to send the product out of state to identify what's in it," Landgraf said. "That can take longer than the six month statute of limitations to get it back in which the case is thrown out."

Landgraf's bill would remove that statute so prosecutors have more time to build their case. She's also looking into more cost-effective ways to test synthetic cannabis locally.

"A bad batch of ‘Spice' kills people," Raynes said. "It kills people and we need to address this problem."

The legislative session begins January 8. Landgraf's bill was drafted last month and is currently undergoing review by the Colorado District Attorneys' Council.

 

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