But It’s Not Illegal, Or Is It? – Imitation Controlled Substances

It seems as if every time we turn on a news program these days we see and hear stories involving substances that are not "controlled substances" but have devastating effects on the user.  Whether it be national or world-wide publicized stories such as the "Florida Zombie Attack" or local stories documenting tragedies linked to substances such as synthetic marijuana or other types of drugs, law enforcement is struggling with how to address this new epidemic. 

Many of these new-fad drugs are synthetic, meaning they are artificially created using various chemicals and components. They are commonly packaged and referred to as non-drug substances such as bath salts, incense, plant food, or other seemingly benign products.  They are then sold in markets, liquor stores or other public locations and are easily accessible to teens and young people as they are not listed as controlled substances.  They can even be legally purchased online.

The synthetic nature of these substances makes it almost impossible for law makers to outlaw the substances because if the ingredients are not known or readily identifiable, it is impossible to pass a law outlawing an unknown substance.  Even if law makers and law enforcement can identify the chemical components and pass a law making that substance illegal, the chemists simply alter the recipe creating a new substance with a new chemical make-up that is not controlled.  The very nature of these substances leaves lawmakers and law enforcement chasing their tails.

Rather than undertake the impossible, attempting to determine the chemical components of every possible synthetic drug that is developed so as define it as a "controlled substance", Iowa does have laws prohibiting manufacture, distribution and sale of imitation controlled substances.  Interesting enough, these laws DO NOT yet prohibit the mere possession of these substances.   Iowa law defines "imitation controlled substance" as "a substance which is not a controlled substance but which by color, shape, size, markings, and other aspects of dosage unit appearance, and packaging or other factors, appears to be or resembles a controlled substance."  The law also sets out a number of factors that may be considered in determining if a substance qualifies as an imitation controlled substance.

1.  Whether the person in control of the substance expressly or impliedly represents that he substance has the effect of a controlled substance.

2.  The person in control of the substance express or impliedly represents that the substance because of its nature or appearance can be sold or delivered as a controlled substance or as a substitute for a controlled substance.

3.  The person in control of the substance either demands or receives money or other property having a value substantially greater than the actual value of the substance as consideration for delivery of the substance.

Currently, Iowa's imitation controlled substance laws are considerably less severe than the traditional controlled substance penalties.  Illegally manufacturing, selling or distributing an imitation controlled substance is only an aggravated misdemeanor.  The offense does not become a felony unless an individual over the age of 18 delivers an imitation controlled substance to a minor who is at least three years younger than the violator.

However, due to the dangerous effects of these substances, there is currently a push in the Iowa Legislature to increase the penalties for these offenses and expand the scope of the imitation controlled substance prohibitions.  Given recent developments and public education on the issues, it is reasonable to expect harsher penalties on these cases in the near future. 

For educational information produced by the State of Iowa on synthetic drugs click here.