As the town and village of Saugerties move forward with laws that would ban the sale of synthetic drugs, marketed in convenience stores as incense, it’s likely the county will soon consider similar legislation.
The most common variety is called “spice,” and sold under the name K2. Manufacturers combine shredded plant material with chemical additives that cause physiological effects similar to marijuana (including paranoia).
County Legislature Chair Terry Bernardo said that she would like to see a similar measure approved on the county level, and has been working with Saugerties supervisor Kelly Myers on a countywide law.
Dr. La Mar Hasbrouck, Ulster County public health director, said that he, too, would like to see a countywide measure, and would coordinate his staff and work with the Ulster County sheriff’s office to enforce it.
“I’m a supporter of what they’re doing in Saugerties,” Hasbrouck said.
Both the town and the village are the first communities in not only Ulster County but also the Hudson Valley to begin the process of approving a law that would ban synthetic marijuana from being sold.
The town is set to hold a public hearing Thursday, March 29 at 6 p.m. at Town Hall; the village, April 16.
Currently many of the local gas stations, smoke shops, and convenience stores sell the product as plant food, herbal incense, bath salts or potpourri, which go by a host of names, including spice, K-2, Hayze, Spike 99, Zohan, Genie, and Yucatan Fire.
The town is also considering a law that would ban the sale of pipes in these same convenience stores. The pipes are sold for tobacco use but are generally used to smoke marijuana. While many local, county and state governments across the country are looking into ways to ban synthetic drugs, the pipes are generally considered legal and have been widely available for decades.
Deputy Police Chief Joe Sinagra explained what would happen if a ban were approved. The police would go to all the stores where the products are being sold, inform the retailers of the law, and tell them to take the items off the shelves and stop selling them. Officers would also conduct “sting operations,” similar to what they already do to keep liquor stores from selling alcohol to minors, he said.
“We will send a clear message to retailers that police will confiscate the materials, and get them tested to see if they are synthetic marijuana,” and then write tickets, Sinagra added.
Police have visited all of the shops that currently sell the stuff and asked them to no longer sell it, but have met resistance, Sinagra explained. “They said that since it’s still legal, they would continue to sell it.”
The deputy chief takes issue with that view.
“What’s more important: our children or your profit?” Sinagra asked.
So far, no one on the village or town board has taken an opposing position.
“If this affects one kid we want it off the shelves,” said trustee Don Hackett.
Fellow trustee Terry Parisian, who is the general manager of the Hudson Valley Mall, echoed Hackett, saying, “we see kids on this stuff at the mall on Friday and Saturday nights and they act crazy.”
“Parents have been asking me what are we going to do,” said Mayor William Murphy. “They’re telling me that they are seeing their kids use this stuff.”
Some of the side effects of using synthetic marijuana, according to experts, include hallucinations, erratic behavior, psychotic episodes, intense anxiety that may lead to suicide, increased heart rate, convulsions, heart attacks, multi-organ system failure, and death.
Penalties for selling or possessing these products calls for a fine of up to $250 for the first offense; $500 for the second offense; and up to $1,000 and a jail sentence of up to one year for a third offense.
Myers also sent a copy of the proposed town law to Ulster County district attorney and Saugerties resident Holley Carnright for his input.
“I asked him to review it and give me feedback,” Myers said. “The district attorney’s office is responsible for prosecuting these types of offenses, and I wanted to make sure that the law was written in a way that made it enforceable. Holley made two suggestions, which were incorporated into the law. He also expressed strong support for this law.”
“This is an emergent public health matter,” Hasbrouck said. The state commissioner of health on March 22 issued a warning to all county health departments about the increased use of these substances by teens, he added.
“We have received anecdotal reports from parents whose children have used this stuff and a number of the county’s mental health workers have reported their clients saying that their children are using it as well,” Hasbrouck said.
If the county passes a law outlawing the sale of the products, Hasbrouck said, his office would conduct the same kind of “stings” they do when they go into stores that sell tobacco products to underage kids.
“It’s important to respond in a timely manner to community emergencies,” Myers explained. “I am proud to say we are doing that. This problem was first brought to my attention by a concerned grandparent, who reported kids going ‘out of their minds’ on this stuff. I looked deeper into this issue and discovered we have a real problem right here in Saugerties. Young people are going to the hospital and the health consequences are very severe. If we want to save kids’ lives, we have no time to lose.”
Myers added that Dutchess County legislators and officials from the town of Fallsburg in Sullivan County have contacted her to get copies of the proposed law.
“Saugerties is leading the way on this important issue,” Myers said. “The feedback I’m getting from the community is that we have to do all we can to protect our kids.”
A New York City newspaper recently ran stories about the dangers of synthetic marijuana, and based on that story and information he has received from law enforcement and health care professionals, Gov. Andrew Cuomo is asking state legislators to approve a law that would ban the products statewide.
Senator Charles Schumer has also introduced a similar measure in the U.S. Senate, but the bill has yet to come up for a vote.
The House passed a law banning the sale of synthetic marijuana in November.
Village officials said that if senators see enough small communities approving laws to ban the sale and possession of synthetic marijuana, maybe that will get them to finally pass a measure as well.