Emergency responders in Newton and McDonald counties have responded to countless medical calls involving synthetic marijuana.

Emergency responders in Newton and McDonald counties have responded to countless medical calls involving synthetic marijuana.

McDonald County Sheriff Robert Evenson said he has seen a rise in hospitalizations and arrests connected with synthetic marijuana.

"As law enforcement, we have seen this stuff become more and more prevalent with young people," said Evenson. "Synthetic marijuana is approaching the degree that the damage associated with it is as great or greater than anything out there. Just because it's sold over-the-counter doesn't mean it's safe. We want parents to be aware of this stuff and how dangerous it is. Teach your children about it."

In Neosho, toxicology reports have indicated the presence of cannabinoids found in synthetic marijuana in the bodies of two people found dead in the city in the past year. And in a more recent incident, three teens — the eldest of whom is 17 — were found unconscious in the parking lot of a Neosho homeless shelter, and in a nearby street. The teens allegedly ingested a packet of synthetic marijuana the father of one of the youths had obtained as a birthday present for his child.

Commonly sold under the brand name "Syn," among others such as "Spice" and "K2," and using cartoon characters to appeal to a younger aged market, the substances mimic the high user's experience with illegal substances such as marijuana. However, "syn" use cannot be detected through conventional testing, although field testing can detect the presence of cannabinoids, illegal substances that mimic those that produce the high in marijuana.

It's an issue that has local law enforcement hot under the collar.

"I want [merchants] to know that if you're selling this in Newton County, we're going to go after you," Newton County Sheriff Ken Copeland said. "As soon as we get toxicology reports back, we're going to come after the merchants who are selling this and arrest them."

Meanwhile, Neosho Police Chief David McCracken told the Daily News that eliminating the problem cannot be done by law enforcement alone.

"It has got to be a county and statewide effort," he said.

Missouri lawmakers passed a measure making synthetic marijuana such as "K2" and "bath salts" illegal last year. But state Rep. Bill Lant, R-Joplin, who represents the 131st district in Southwest Missouri, said legislative efforts to ban the sale of synthetic marijuana have been "a long and sordid story."

"Three years in a row, we passed a bill dealing with synthetic marijuana and bath salts," Lant said. "It passed the House, the Senate and was signed by the governor. Each time we do this, apparently the prosecutors didn't feel they got a strong enough case."

The measure lists synthetic cannabinoid in the following manner:
"Any natural or synthetic material, compound, mixture, or preparation that contains any quantity of a substance that is a cannabinoid receptor agonist, including … any analogues, homologues; isomers, whether optical, positional or geometric' esters; salts; and salts of isomers, esters and ethers, whenever the existence of the isomers, esters, ethers or salts is possible within the specific chemical designation, however, it shall not include any approved pharmaceutical authorized by the United States Food and Drug Administration."

The bill also lists the banned chemical compounds specifically. This is where prosecutors are leery, as defense attorneys could say the chemistry of synthetic marijuana in a particular case varies from the elements listed in the measure, creating a loophole for their clients.

Lant disagreed.

"Changing the formula has been cited as one of the reasons, but that's not correct," Lant said. "Actually, if it's a cannabinoid, it's illegal."

Police officials said testing two envelopes of the same type of synthetic marijuana could bring two different results. One may test positive for illegal cannabinoids, while another of the same brand may test negative.

"It could be two different lot numbers," said Steve Hays, Neosho city prosecutor. "It could be a case of cross contamination, where the places that make this are using the same vats or whatever they make this in that had illegal attributes in one and they didn't do a good cleaning. Some of it may be illegal and some of it may contain only what is legal."

The tests themselves, Hays said, are expensive to perform, which also make it harder for financially strapped law enforcement agencies to do the necessary testing to make a strong case. This, in turn, makes for an offense that is difficult to prosecute.

"You get to the point you're not only fighting to make the charges stick, you're fighting challenges put up by expert witnesses," Hays said. "At this time, it's very difficult to prosecute."

Evenson said his department is testing samples of seized product for the presence of cannabinoids, and recently received field test kits so deputies can test substances found on those they arrest.

"You have to remember that's just one of the tools in our tool box," Evenson said. "We have to make sure we're not arresting someone for having something that is not illegal in Missouri."

And he added that his department is finding that the presence of synthetic marijuana on a suspect has become "pretty regular."

Lant said he and other co-sponsors of the bill have been talking to prosecutors in their districts to see what issues need to be addressed for the measure to be enforceable.

"Honestly, we thought everything was covered that needed to be covered," he said. "Apparently, it wasn't. I have every intention of trying this again. I have been talking to prosecutors within my district, and others have been talking to their prosecutors, to find out what we need."

Despite troubles with Missouri legislation, other states have passed harsh measures dealing with merchants who sell synthetic marijuana. For instance, Louisiana law not only imposes fines for those who sell it, but the revocation of the store's liquor license as well. This is an idea Lant finds appealing.

"Is something like that on the way here? Not yet, but I like the idea!" he exclaimed.
Meanwhile, Hays and Neosho Mayor Richard Davidson are studying ordinances passed by the city of Miami, Fla., and Dade County, Fla., banning the sale and distribution of synthetic marijuana. While they joked in a recent roundtable discussion about flying to Florida to investigate the ordinances first-hand, Davidson said he would be willing to do so "if that's what it takes."

The mayor added he intends to bring the issue up during a future town hall meeting. The date of this meeting has not yet been set.

Substance abuse isn't a new problem, officials said, and synthetic marijuana is just the latest in a long list of substances that are abused. Hays said he recently prosecuted a case in city court where an individual was using canned computer duster to get high.

"If a person has a desire to reach a high, they're going to find that high," he said. "The difference between those people and those using synthetic marijuana right now is that synthetic marijuana is advertised as being legal. If a person is doing something that is deemed to be legal, the assumption is it's not harmful. People who not normally abuse a substance are using it."