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Proposed Utah laws take on fake urine, kratom and overdose deaths

The rotunda of the Capitol in Salt Lake City is pictured on Friday, Jan. 25, 2019.
The rotunda of the Capitol in Salt Lake City is pictured on Friday, Jan. 25, 2019.
Silas Walker, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — A proposal that would create penalties for faking a drug test with synthetic urine is among several measures being debated by a panel that advises Utah leaders on mental health and drug issues.

If the bill passes, Utah would join several other states in criminalizing the possession and sale of fake urine. State lawmakers are expected to consider the measure in the 2019 legislative session, which convenes Monday.

"There is a pretty significant problem with regard to the use of pirate urine and all of the means by which that gets delivered," said Scott Reed, an assistant Utah attorney general and a vice chairman of the Utah Substance Use and Mental Health Advisory Council.

But drug court and parole administrators already sanction those who are caught submitting fake urine for analysis, council director Mary Lou Emerson noted. The group has largely voiced early support to make selling or distributing the substance a misdemeanor offense. But it hasn't rallied behind criminalizing possession of the substance or providing it at a lab, over concerns it could derail offenders' progress, she said during a meeting this week of a council subgroup.

Bill sponsor Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, said he is considering possible tweaks to include heavier penalties for those who work public safety-related jobs, like a school bus driver, and ensure that any fraudulent tests for those types of workers are reported to authorities. The new version of the proposal may include lighter consequences for others, like requiring them to start in a treatment program, he said.

"I ultimately want these people to get help," Eliason said, adding that "nobody's benefitting" if they fake their way through treatment. His measure would exempt those who use the fake urine for research or education. It has not yet received an official up or down vote from the committee.

The advisory panel has no lawmaking power, but it advises Utah Gov. Gary Herbert and legislators, sometimes weighing in on bills during public hearings. It is made up of representatives from police and enforcement agencies, plus treatment providers and others.

The group reviewed a different proposal from Eliason that would carve out a job in the Utah Office of the Medical Examiner to focus on autopsies for those who have overdosed on painkillers and heroin. The council has thrown early support behind the bill so long as overdoses from other drugs also can be included in that person's role.

"They're fair questions," Eliason said. "We know those trends ebb and flow."

• In another overdose-related proposal, Senate Minority Leader Karen Mayne, D-West Valley City, seeks to hold large-scale drug operations accountable if the substances they make or distribute kill someone, making clear that having a pill press or a similar device indicates someone's intent to operate a secret drug lab. The bill would make the offense a first-degree felony.

"That really is what we're trying to go after here, is your upper-tier drug dealers, not the kid who gives drugs to his fiends," said Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, who is sponsoring the bill in the House.

The panel supports the proposed move, but seeks to ensure syringe-exchange programs won't be targeted. Ray said the programs won't be affected.

• Another lawmaker is taking aim at kratom, a substance that acts like an opiate but isn't yet illegal. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has warned against it, saying claims it can combat opiate withdrawal are unproven and that it has sometimes contained salmonella and dangerous levels of heavy metals.

"It's just kind of some scary stuff that we don't know a lot about," said Reed. In the last five years, 43 people in the United States have died after taking the substance, he said.

A consumer protection law proposed by Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, would require certain labels on the product and would prevent its sale in some cases. Under the measure, Utah's agriculture administrators would regulate the drug that is derived from a tree native to Southeast Asia.