The Iowa House has passed a bill that would set new, tough penalties for those caught with a new class of powerful, mind-altering synthetic drugs like “K-2” or “Cloud Nine”. Representative Tom Sands, a Republican from Wapello, says these drugs, typically marketed as incense or bath salts, are very dangerous.

“This bill is the ultimate deterrent,” Sands says. “These drugs are in our homes and communities today. That is why we are acting on this today.” The family of an Indianola teenager who shot himself last June after smoking the product was at the statehouse watching as the House passed the legislation late Tuesday afternoon on a 93 to four vote.

Mike Rozga  is now an advocate for this tough new law in honor of his son, David. “It’s a dangerous drug. It’s being marketed to, primarily, our kids and young people under false pretenses,” Rozga says. “It’s sold under the guise of being synthetic marijuana and, if you listen to the reactions that people have to that drug, it doesn’t sound like marijuana.”

In addition to hallucinations, Rozga says people who’ve used the drug have reported vomiting for hours, and suffering both panic attacks and black-outs. While all but four members the House voted for the legislation, several Democrats questioned why the state should make it a felony, with a potential penalty of a decade in prison if you’re caught using, selling or possessing this class of drugs.

Representative Mary Wolfe, a Democrat from Clinton, questioned why the bill sets a tougher penalty for possessing these drugs than someone would face if caught with marijuana.

“My understanding of marijuana, and I’m not necessarily speaking from experience here, is that it is a hallucinogenic drug that alters the thought process. That’s in fact why we make it a crime,” Wolfe says. “These things listed in the bill are all hallucinogenic drugs that alter thought processes. They are, in fact, synthetic marijuana. Again, why is it that we are making it so much more serious (a crime)? It’s twice as serious.”

Rather than sending more people to prison, Representative Todd Taylor, a Democrat from Cedar Rapids, suggested a better course of action would be to allocate more state tax dollars for substance abuse treatment programs. “So that people can get treatment and then not be involved in drugs and then we can help our society that way instead of some unknown fiscal impact that we’re not seeming to care about because we want to pass a bill to say, ‘We’re tought on crime,'” Taylor says.

“We need to be smart on crime.” But Representative Clel Baudler, a Republican from Greenfield, says the products sold as bath salts are very dangerous drugs that cause “intense cravings” which can lead to “binges” that last several days. “Effects of using this drug include extreme anxiety, paranoia, hallucination, hostility, violence and even suicidal thoughts,” Baudler says.

Rozga, the father of the teenager who committed suicide after taking the drug, says he’s relieved the House embraced the tougher penalties. “Now we have to move onto the Senate,” Rozga says. The bill will next be reviewed by the Iowa Senate Judiciary Committee. U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley is drafting legislation at the federal level which would crack down on these products.