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Robert Houk

Opinion Page Editor
rhouk@johnsoncitypress.com
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As I See It

Banning fake drugs is not as easy as it sounds

December 12th, 2011 9:07 am by Robert Houk

Sullivan County commissioners have decided to follow Kingsport’s mayor and aldermen down the same slippery slope. Last week, commissioners agreed to support Kingsport’s outlawing of synthetic drugs and would like to make it a countywide ban.
Kingsport’s ban carries a $50 civil penalty, which is the maximum allowed in this case under Tennessee law.
These products are currently legal under Tennessee law, a fact that has led to not-so-empty threats of litigation by retailers who sell them.
Kingsport Mayor Dennis Phillips says he welcomes those lawsuits. Perhaps he should be careful of what he wishes for.
You have to wonder why Sullivan County commissioners are so keen to join Kingsport in jumping off this potentially expensive legal precipice. Remember, though, these are the same elected officials who have expressed support for closing government meetings to the public.
Given their incredibly baffling decisions in public, heaven only knows what knuckleheaded ideas they might hatch in private.
I’m not saying elected officials shouldn’t be concerned by some of these synthetic drugs. Users and law enforcement officials say these products can be as dangerous, if not more dangerous, than the real thing. But simply banning these products won’t stamp out the problem alone.
If there is a demand for a product, there will always be entrepreneurs in this country who will find a way to fill it.
I recalled in a column a few months back how Johnson City was one of the communities hardest hit by the jake leg epidemic. It was a time when booze was illegal, but drinking was still a favorite pastime of many Americans.
Jake leg was a by-product of Prohibition, just as synthetic marijuana and herbal bath salts are a product of this country’s euphemistic “war of drugs.”
Such bans fail to take into account the “stubbornness Americanus,” a species that mistrusts government to begin with and has no patience with its trying to legislate temperance.
Victims of jake leg experienced “foot-floppiness” and walked with a “rubber-legged gait” that often ended in paralysis. The cause was linked to their consumption of a patent medicine known as jake — Jamaica ginger extract. While this so-called medicine was sold legally under the Volstead Act, it packed the wallop of four jiggers of scotch.
Tennessee lawmakers have tried to tackle the synthetic drug problem before, only to be stymied by the same ingenuity displayed by the patent medicine hucksters of the Prohibition era.
The state tried to outlaw ingredients found in synthetic drugs — only to find manufacturers changing the recipe to include substances not included in the ban.
The state of Virginia has banned the specific chemical compounds used in synthetic drugs, as well as other substances manufacturers might use. Tennessee lawmakers will likely look to Virginia next year in crafting a new law to deal with fake pot.
It might, however, be cheaper and make more sense just to legalize marijuana. I wouldn’t hold my breath on that happening.

Robert Houk is Opinion page editor for the Johnson City Press. He can be reached at rhouk@johnsoncitypress.com.

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