State lawmakers are moving to make it a crime to have artificial marijuana even as health officials are paving the way to let people get the real stuff.
Without debate, the House on Wednesday gave preliminary approval to legislation that adds 10 compounds being sold as synthetic marijuana to the list of dangerous -- and illegal -- drugs. A final vote will send the measure to the Senate.
The move will put Arizona in line with 11 other states which already have outlawed the various compounds.
Legislative staffers say 21 states are weighing similar legislation. And the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency announced in November a temporary ban on five of these.
Marketed under names like K2 and Spice, some of these laboratory drugs are chemical relatives of THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana. But because these are structurally different -- even by just a few molecules -- they do not fall under the ban.
Rep. Amanda Reeve, R-Phoenix, said while the compounds, often sprayed on plant materials, are similar to marijuana, the effects on those who smoke it are far less predictable.
"It's causing some really adverse reaction,'' she said.
"I talked to one gentleman ... who said for three days he was unable to see straight and his motor skills were impaired,'' Reeve continued. "So it's very serious.''
Reeve, the prime sponsor of HB 2167, said the move to ban these drugs is particularly important now because the state is in the process of making it legal for some people who have a doctor's recommendation to purchase and use real marijuana.
Personally, Reeve said she opposed the initiative. But it passed anyway. And that, she said, is creating a "misunderstanding'' which complicating efforts to fight the imitators.
"A lot of these people, kids especially, younger adults, are thinking that, 'Oh, this is like legalized marijuana, it can't be that harmful,' '' she said. "It's far more serious than that.''
Rep. Matt Heinz, D-Tucson, said part of the problem is the fact that users see the drug simply as a synthetic form of marijuana.
"These THC analogs, some of them don't look anything like THC from a molecular chemical standpoint,'' said Heinz, who is a doctor.
"These were designed for research purposes, investigative purposes only,'' he said, not for recreational uses. Now, he said, manufacturers taking advantage of the legal loophole are spraying the chemicals on plant materials, calling it incense "and having it stealth marketed on campuses, around town, at the water cooler to 17- to 25-year-olds, the most susceptible population who don't know any better.''
What's worse, said Heinz, is that, unlike marijuana, the effects are unpredictable.
He cited an emergency room case he handled involving a 21-year-old man who had smoked it who had uncontrolled twitching, blurred vision and could not speak.
"And the three gentlemen who were smoking with him had no effects whatsoever,'' Heinz recalled, calling it "a perfect example of why this is an unpredictable and very dangerous substance.''
Heinz said he has admitted several other patients to the hospital in the last six to seven months with similar problems.
"That is why we classified it as a dangerous substance and not just similar to marijuana.''
Heinz said there's another reason any comparison to legalizing medical marijuana is invalid. He said the Arizona law approved by voters in November is very narrow, spelling out limited circumstances under which a doctor can recommend marijuana to a patient.
By comparison, he said the laws in states like Colorado and California allow pretty much anyone who comes in with any medical complaint to get a physician's certification to buy the drug.