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‘Making a big statement’: BOC approves new rules for drug substitutes, vape stores
Synthetic marijuana - 7-11
A sampling of the synthetic marijuana products seized during a recent sweep by the Forsyth County Sheriff's Office. - photo by For the Forsyth County News

Forsyth County Commissioners approved sweeping new rules for stores that sell products intended to simulate the effects of marijuana and other drugs this week.

On Thursday, Forsyth County Commissioners voted 5-0 in favor of a trio of changes to county ordinances to regulate substances “that mimic the effects of” marijuana and other drugs, tie the sale of those substitutes and alternative nicotine products – such as e-cigarettes and vapes – to alcohol licenses and licensing for the sale of those nicotine products.

“We’re making a big statement: if you want to sell this stuff, you’re going to be held accountable,” said District 4 Commissioner Cindy Jones Mills, who made the motion for the first change. “Hopefully, they won’t want to sell it. If they get a mark or two against that alcohol license, they will say, ’It’s not worth the profit we can make.’”

Much of the discussion focused on regulating drug substitutes, which county officials have previously expressed frustration with as chemists producing the substitutes change the composition to a similar-but-not-prohibited chemical as soon as rules are changed.

“We’re attempting to capture those substances that are missed, that are not regulated yet because the chemists that are producing these nefarious substances are working so diligently to poison our kids that our laws can’t keep up with it anymore,” said County Attorney Ken Jarrard.

Jarrard said the definition of unregulated drug substitutes “refers to any compound or substance whether it is synthetic or naturally occurring, which is significant, regardless of whether the compound is marketed for the purpose of being smoked, injected, inhaled or ingested by humans or for human consumption.”

Products will qualify if they are not regulated as a Schedule I drug at the state or federal level, a reasonable person would believe the substance was sold “to circumvent the criminal penalties” of those drugs and was “intended to cause or simulate a stimulant, depressant or hallucinogenic effect” similar to those drugs.

Under the second code change, stores that also sell alcohol found to be selling those products can receive a penalty against their alcohol license, which can lead to revocation of the license.

Several speakers spoke out against the drug substitutes.

County resident Kirk Wintersteen said the substances could be found at gas stations and were “two steps ahead” of legislation.

“We know we are having problems with chemicals that mimic the effects of marijuana, steroids and opioids, and we know that legal drug use can lead to illegal drug use,” he said. “In north Georgia, we have young people who use these legal products and they may end up in the hospital and believe they are addicted to the product.”

Victoria Ray, coordinator for the Forsyth County Drug Awareness Council, said she was in long-term recovery and knew the effects drugs could have on people and wanted to advocate for those who didn’t have a voice. She said she felt the changes would protect kids in the county and the county could set an example for the rest of the state.

“I’m working with high schools and law enforcement and recovery organizations in the community. What they’re going to tell you is the people who are using these synthetic drugs are not adults, not normally,” she said. “These things are for the kids. These things are what the kids are using and there is an epidemic right now.”

Dana Bryan, a member of the drug council who said she lost her 15-year-old daughter to drug use, said that “as adults, it is our responsibility to do everything in our power to provide our youth and all citizens with the safest environment that is in our power.”

“I am concerned about anything that provides our youth with addictive substances and substances that can affect their developing brains, therefore will affect their behavior and the choices they make at such a critical time in their life,” Bryan said. “Our county has the reputation of protecting our citizens. Please consider the damage that is done by chemicals that control the behavior and choices of those who use, not to mention introducing the user to the life-long challenge of addiction.”

Jarrard said the final ordinance meant a permitting system for stores “whose primary business is alternative nicotine products, mainly e-cigarette and vape products, like vape juice.” The fee will be $1,000 per year, and the rule change will go into effect in 2020.