Four months after the Frederick Board of Aldermen voted unanimously to block the sale, use and possession of synthetic marijuana known as “spice,” city police routinely have been using the new ordinance to issue citations.
Sgt. John Corbett, supervisor of the Drug Enforcement Unit of the Frederick Police Department, said the department has issued at least 14 citations for spice possession or use since January.
But he said that number could be slightly higher because someone arrested for a more serious crime would be cited for that crime first, with the spice citation added later. He said spice citations have increased this year.
“That’s probably a function of the weather,” he said. “... In the cold-weather months, people take everything inside.”
The ban went into effect Nov. 2, after the five aldermen unanimously approved it at a public hearing the day before.
Synthetic marijuana is similar to tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the active compound found in marijuana, but is much stronger than the real thing, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. It is sold as potpourri or incense not fit for human consumption, but users smoke it like marijuana.
The city had held several meetings with residents over the sale of spice while crafting legislation to target such synthetic cannabinoids with the help of Frederick County State’s Attorney Charlie Smith (R).
Mayor Randy McClement said he was pleased at how quickly merchants responded to the city’s ban, with all of the stores that had been selling the product immediately pulling it from their shelves.
“Ever since it was enacted, from a selling aspect, all I can tell is from what I’ve been told is that it’s definitely not a problem,” he said. “I know a couple of the places had pretty much pulled everything out from shelves when we were voting. The other places were told the day it went into effect, ‘You have to get it out.’”
He said the ban had an instantly noticeable effect on the streets, with the disappearance of lingering users and would-be purchasers, who were a source of frequent resident and business owner complaint.
“On Market Street, it was really like night and day from Thursday night to Friday morning,” McClement said. “We had the one location on North Market that was having lines out the door — the next day they didn’t have it, and there was no one there. It physically looked different, and we got numerous positive responses.”
Corbett said the citations for spice violations, which are municipal infractions carrying a fine of up to $1,000, or 90 days in jail, or both, often are handled without an arrest being made.
“We’re under a mandate to process people differently,” he said. “... It’s handled more like a traffic stop. You hand someone a citation, and they go on their way.”
Exceptions are made if the person cannot be properly identified or is involved in another potential violation, such as disorderly conduct, he said.
The spice is then confiscated and sent to a lab for testing. Officers are trained to recognize the substances by sight and smell, Corbett said.
The department has not had to drop charges against someone for misidentifying spice after a lab report, he said.
After the city took action, the synthetic drugs popped up in other areas of the county. A store in the Araby community that was selling the drugs was given an eviction notice from the landlord and closed.
Thurmont also banned the substance in October, and Walkersville took the same action in December.
Meanwhile, some residents in the Jefferson area raised concerns about a gas station selling the drug during a March 7 community meeting organized by Frederick County Sheriff Chuck Jenkins (R).
The meeting, which also was attended by members of the Maryland State Police, was held to discuss crime trends in the town. Jenkins told residents that because the substance is legal, the department could not compel the gas station to stop selling it.
Frederick’s ordinance also prompted some state lawmakers to pattern a proposed statewide ban using similar language.
Bills drafted to address the problem just in Frederick County did not garner much support, but a statewide ban introduced in the House passed the House with a vote of 132-0 on Feb. 22. A state Senate committee held a hearing on the bill on Feb. 25.
Del. Galen Clagett (D-Dist. 3A), one of 28 co-sponsors of the bill and the chairman of the county House delegation, said Tuesday that he expects the measure to pass in the Senate.
“I think it will be OK,” he said. “It’s a good piece of legislation.”
An additional bill, introduced in the Senate, would authorize research on synthetic cannabinoids and list them as a controlled dangerous substance. It passed a second reading with amendments on Tuesday, and is awaiting a final vote.
Staff Writer Morgan Young contributed to this report.