(CN) - Jeopardizing convictions in Germany of two men who sold synthetic marijuana-like herbs, the EU's top court found Thursday that laws governing medicinal products are not applicable.
Germany's Federal Court went to the European Court of Justice for guidance in criminal proceedings against two German vendors convicted of selling mixtures of herbs containing synthetic cannabinoids. The vendors had sold the herb mixtures online and in their shops, marketing them as "air fresheners" not intended for human consumption. Since the substances did not fall under the German law on narcotic drugs at the time, authorities prosecuted the sellers under a ban on the sale of unsafe medicinal products, claiming they knew customers used them as a substitute for marijuana.
The consumption of synthetic cannabinoids induces a state of intoxication that may range from intense excitement to hallucinations, and may cause nausea, heart-racing, delusions and even heart attacks. The pharmaceutical industry abandoned testing of synthetic cannabinoids at an early stage after discovering a potential for serious side effects, according to papers filed with the European Court of Justice.
One of the sellers received a suspended sentence of one year and nine months imprisonment, while the second was sentenced to four years and six months and a fine of 200,000 euros. In considering the appeals from both vendors, the Federal Court asked the EU's top court to clarify if the products the defendants had sold could be classified as "medicinal products."
European Union law defines "medicinal products" as substances that modify physiological functions and have a beneficial effect on human health, such as treating or preventing disease.
The term "medicinal product," therefore, "must be interpreted as not covering substances, such as those at issue in the main proceedings, which produce effects that merely modify physiological functions and which do not bring about any improvement in those functions, are consumed solely in order to induce a state of intoxication and are, as such, harmful to human health," the court noted in its decision Thursday.
Such drugs are incomparable to contraceptives or abortifacients, which are subject to a special regime, the judges noted.
Synthetic cannabinoids, which are consumed purely for recreational purposes, and are harmful to human health, do not fall under the definition of "medicinal products," the court concluded.
The fact that the marketing of the substances at issue may not be subject to any criminal law sanction cannot influence the court's findings, the ruling adds.
The Court of Justice's ruling is binding on other national courts in European Union member states. The top court, however, does not decide the dispute itself, which is left up to the national court.
Synthetic "legal highs," which produce experiences similar to marijuana, are sold as bath salts, plant food or air fresheners across Europe and the United States. Authorities have a hard time controlling their distribution, which often happens online, since they are not regulated by narcotics laws.