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Synthetic marijuana called 'spice' poses problems for crime lab

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Prosecuting drivers under the influence of synthetic cannabinoid products, or spice, is proving a challenge because changes in the drug are outpacing the crime lab’s ability to test for it.

“It is a pretty new phenomenon,” said Richmond County sheriff’s Sgt. Danny Whitehead, a supervisor on the department’s DUI task force. “But now we are seeing it become a real problem.”

Whitehead said spice has an effect on drivers almost identical to marijuana. The slowed reaction time and general lack of awareness make driving dangerous, but getting users off the street through court cases is difficult because of lack of proof.

Spice is a chemical drug that is constantly evolving, Whitehead said. Every time one version becomes illegal, producers alter it slightly, making it legal again. The changes make testing for the drug moot.

In February, the Drug Enforcement Agency extended a temporary order that makes five of the chemicals used to produce spice illegal through Aug. 29.

Georgia Bureau of Investigation spokesman John Bankhead said state law makes about 90 percent of synthetic cannabinoid products illegal. In mid-April, Fort Gordon authorities banned Trip 3 Smoke Shop in Augusta after military police said they received complaints that the store on Wrightsboro Road was selling spice to soldiers.

When a driver is tested for drugs during a DUI arrest, Richmond County sheriff’s deputies send the sample to the GBI lab to be tested. However, they have to mark on the sample what they are testing for, and since spice’s effect is so close to marijuana’s, authorities sometimes look for the wrong drug.

Currently, the GBI can test for some versions of spice and are expanding testing capabilities, Bankhead said. He could not say how many of the drug’s varieties the agency is able to test for because there are so many versions.

Without definitive proof, successfully prosecuting a spice DUI comes down to the arresting officer’s testimony, training and video of the traffic stop. Augusta Solicitor General Charles Evans said the state uses everything at its disposal, from the arresting officer to video and witnesses.

“The state would use all evidence, including physical manifestation of intoxication, to prove our case,” he said.

Richmond County relies on its Drug Recognition Experts, or DRE officers. It has two and is working to train a third.

“These officers have been through rigorous training,” Whitehead said. “They go through refresher courses. They know the latest drugs and the signs of them.”

Whitehead said the sheriff’s office has successfully prosecuted with deputy testimony.

On any DUI arrest, the driver can refuse all testing. Even if the driver consents, however, the lack of definitive testing for spice likely means negative test results, giving defense attorneys the opportunity to use a clean report as evidence of their clients’ sobriety.

Whitehead said the bottom line is getting dangerous drivers off the roads. Deputies aggressively document and pursue all drug DUI cases.

“We have to educate the community about the dangers of driving on these drugs,” he said. “That’s our job, to keep the roads safe.”

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itsanotherday1 05/16/12 - 11:29 pm
Hopefully, this will

Hopefully, this will emphasize a pet peeve of mine; and that is utilizing video as definitive evidence of impaired driving. I personally know of two cases of dui where the officer stopped them claiming they were weaving, but conveniently, the camera wasn't working when asked for video support by defense attorneys. Yes, they both were beyond the limit when tested, but there is no evidence of probable cause to pull them over. Video proves the case either way for those barely over.

stillamazed 05/29/12 - 03:37 pm

I honestly believe this crap is dangerous.......just because they change it how can it become legal again? That makes no sense to me, a drug is a drug.....This is what that young man and his girlfriend used when he went crazy and almost beat her to death. I wonder if marijuana was legal would people still put this crap in their bodies? Driving DUI is driving DUI but from a personal safety standpoint do you think they would put this mess in their bodies if the real thing was legal? I agree about the camera's the way, I wonder how many people drive everyday on precription drugs??????

Stercus accidit
Stercus accidit 05/31/12 - 03:35 pm
You do realize that these

You do realize that these harder more dangerous drugs have only gained popularity with people because politicians and their ban hammers have made less harmful drugs illegal or at least heavily restricted. On top of that you only make it worse by using sweeping bans against these 'designer' drugs without find out if and how dangerous they are on an individual basis. This causes a reaction in which the producers of these drugs end up going back to the drawing board and simply whip up a new drug. This particular Pandora's box was born from the war on drugs and maybe we need to step back and see what drug laws are working for other countries like Portugal. Another thing we can do is look at history and see how the Prohibition didn't work as people simply made moonshine(spice in this case) and smuggled alcohol (cartel drugs) from other countries. Do I think all drugs should be banned? I do think that certain drugs should be banned but all of those are the harder drugs like cocaine,meth and opiates not the less harmful drugs like tobacco, marijuana and alcohol. If the government wants to stop indirectly funding drug cartels,they need to stop coddling the American people when it comes to drugs and stop working to making drugs illegal,work to step back bans on drugs like tobacco and make legal the cartels' biggest cash crop marijuana then watch as the cartels lose money that america would be making through a regulated product. In the end we need to recognize that the drug war has become unsustainable as it stands right now and while it tries to appeal to our best interests, it ends up only making things worse then they were before. All in all this tragedy was terrible and I feel bad for the involved persons' families but the officers shouldn't be trying to claim anything without full allocation of the facts.

p.s. Did you know that in states with heavy handed taxes and/or bans on tobacco, gangs have actually started going to less restricted states where they buy the tobacco for cheap then go back to those states with the heavier bans/taxes and sell the tobacco to people there.

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