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Pennsylvania lawmakers hope new law banning synthetic drugs has more teeth

By John Craven, Reporter, JCraven@wfmz.com
Published On: Jul 10 2013 03:48:13 PM CDT
Updated On: Jul 11 2013 06:00:00 AM CDT

So-called "bath salts" and other synthetic drugs can be just as lethal as heroin or cocaine.

So-called "bath salts" and other synthetic drugs can be just as lethal as heroin or cocaine. 

Pennsylvania banned them two years ago, but state lawmakers just closed a loophole that kept many of the drugs legal, even after the ban.

The law itself was actually the problem, according to vice cops and prosecutors.  It was so specific that drug dealers easily got around it.

Synthetic drugs often lead to results even worse than the illegal narcotics they mimic.

"I think it's just as dangerous as any other amphetamine or cocaine," Dr. Matthew Cook, a toxicologist at Lehigh Valley Hospital, said in 2011.

The stories were shocking. Two years ago, a Hellertown, Northampton Co., woman spoke about her son, whose arm was nearly amputated after consuming bath salts.

"Don't do it," Michele Gubish said at the time.  "There's no good that can come out of it."

Once commonly available in stores, Gov. Tom Corbett signed a much-publicized ban two years ago, but prosecutors said dealers didn't take long to get around it.

"It did go away for awhile, but it was popping up again," said Northampton County District Attorney John Morganelli.

According to narcotics detectives and prosecutors, the 2011 law banned only specific strains and chemical combinations.

"The people who manufacture these substances were able to tweak the compounds that make up the substances to essentially take it outside of the definition [of illegal drugs]," said Morganelli.

The head of Lehigh County's Drug Task Force agreed.

"You'd send it off to the lab, and it would come back legal," said Det. Joe Stauffer.

Law enforcement went back to Harrisburg for a fix.

"It kind of turned into at least one D.A. describes as a 'cat and mouse' game, where they had banned certain drugs, but then new drugs that fell outside of the ban -- but still were accomplishing the same types of highs were being made," said Pa. Rep. Mike Schlossberg, D-Allentown.

Schlossberg co-sponsored a new synthetic drug ban that Corbett signed last week.

"This language makes it broader," said Morganelli.  "Rather than identifying a specific compound, it identifies a class of compounds."

Scholssberg said he hopes the law finally has more teeth.

"They shouldn't have to go at it again, unless new chemicals are developed that still will get somebody high," he said.

The penalties remain the same.  If you're caught trying to sell this stuff, you can face up to five years in prison.