OSWEGO, NY – Assemblyman Will Barclay was joined May 28 by State Senator Ritchie’s office to announce the introduction of comprehensive legislation addressing synthetic drugs in New York State.
Also taking part in the event outside the Oswego County Public Justice Center were representatives from law enforcement, the medical field and those advocating for harsher penalties for those making and selling these substances.
The legislation announced today addresses mislabeling, chemical swapping and creates penalties for possessing and selling synthetic drugs equivalent to their “street drug” counterpart.
Two key provisions of the bill is that it gives broader power to the Commissioner of Health to add chemicals to the list, rather than having the legislature act to add to the list of controlled substances and penalizes stores for selling mislabeled products when they are clearly intended to be used as drugs.
“I was first approached on this issue about a year or so ago; probably when the sales of synthetic drugs were at their high point,” Assemblyman Barclay said. “At that time, I’d heard from law enforcement, public health officials and families who’d been victimized by these drugs, asking if there was anything the state could do to outlaw their sales.”
What is really tragic is that the makers and sellers of these drugs preyed on our youth, by portraying their products as legal alternatives to their street drug counterparts, he pointed out.
“They also took advantage of how the state and federal government banned these substances, which was through their chemical composition. Every time the state or federal government banned a chemical formula, manufactures bypassed that ban by simply swapping out the chemicals,” Barclay continued.
At first, the penalties regarding (synthetics) bath salts (a violation) were to 15 days in jail and under the public health law a $250 fine, Oswego County DA Greg Oaks said.
Last fall he applauded the county’s efforts in passing laws that made it a misdemeanor (to possess or sell), which meant up to a year in jail and a substantially higher fine. “I’d love to prosecute them as a felony. We just don’t have the tools to do that right now,” he said at the time.
“We are making headway and the synthetic drug trade has really slowed over the last year,” Barclay said Tuesday. “But because it’s such a moving target and the danger is so great, we simply can’t rest on our laurels.”
He introduced legislation that will close legal loopholes and penalize dealers and users of synthetics to prevent further addiction and deaths, he explained.
Senator Patty Ritchie and Assemblyman Bob Oaks are co-sponsors on the bill.
The legislation is such that when it’s passed, it will have an immediate impact, the assemblyman predicted. It won’t allow manufactures to get around the law just by changing their formulas.
“The biggest challenge to banning synthetic drugs has been that these products are typically sold as other products, such as bath salts, shoe powder and incense when they are, in fact, being used as drugs. A lot of people are selling these drugs by saying they are the legal equivalent of what’s on the street,” Barclay said. “And, they are also selling them as being ‘safe drugs.’”
The other problem addressing the ban is that like most states, New York bans drugs based on their chemical composition.
Manufacturers of these drugs take advantage of this and frequently swap chemical formulas to bypass any bans. A good example of this is the ban on bath salts that was enacted in 2011.
“The state banned a certain chemical formula and manufacturers simply switched formulas and continued to sell these products after the ban,” he said. “We are giving the State Attorney General more weapons … to be able to go after this mislabelization. We also gave the Commissioner of Health the ability to put whatever the compounds are on the banned drugs list.”
Those are the two most important things in the legislation, the assemblyman said.
“Synthetic drugs are still a problem. And, they are going to continue to be a problem unless we get an approach, which I think this legislation does, that is going to change the way things go in the future and make sure that we keep these dangerous substances away from people and off our streets,” Barclay said.
DA Oakes also serves as the county’s coroner.
“Last year we saw way too many events where young men and women were putting their lives at risk; and unfortunately in some cases did lose their lives as a result of the synthetic drugs that are being funneled to our kids as a legal and safe alternative to street drugs,” he said. “This legislation recognizes the real truth. These synthetic drugs are poison.”
They are, in many cases, more dangerous than crack cocaine, he added.
People using synthetic drugs are showing up in hospital ERs with symptoms that medical personnel didn’t know how to treat, he said.
“We need to absolutely keep pushing on this type of legislation,” Sheriff Reuel Todd said. “We need to protect. That’s my job, to protect the young and the old of this community.”
The people who are pushing synthetic drugs, and the ingredients that they put into them, “have absolutely no care about the damage that it does, the reaction to the people that are taking theses drugs,” he said.
Synthetics are extremely dangerous because they aren’t regulated, he pointed out.
They keep pushing these substances, “all for the sake of making a few dollars,” the sheriff said. “We have to stop this and stop the hurt and the pain for our young and our old.”
Officials say that current penalties established under the NYS Department of Health’s ban are too lenient; they include a $500 fine or a 15-day jail sentence.
Barclay, Oaks, and Ritchie’s bill would increase penalties so they are the equivalent to possession or sale of marijuana or controlled substance. Additionally, the bill increases penalties for mislabeling substances to purposely circumvent state and federal law. Under this legislation, if a person believes that a store is selling synthetic drugs, they can file a complaint with the Attorney General.
Based on evidence, the Attorney General can act and make an application to the court requesting a special procedure, to issue an injunction to stop selling the product. If it is determined by the court that the store violated the law of mislabeling synthetic drug for a minor to purchase, those individuals could be charged with a felony.
The legislation also defines synthetic cannabinoid as a chemical compound that is “chemically synthesized.” It specifies that a synthetic drug is any substance that affects a person’s cannabinoid receptor.
The cannabinoid receptors language in the legislation is also key: It pinpoints the affect the drug has on a person, rather than naming actual substances, which has proven to be problematic in banning these products. This also helps address the issue of chemical swapping.
Joining the officials at today’s event was Teresa Woolson and her family who are advocating for strengthening laws regarding synthetic drug use.
Woolson’s son, Victor, lost his battle with drugs in 2012 and died from injuries related to synthetic drug use. He died after federal legislation and the New York State Department of Health ban was put in place.
Teresa’s daughter, Sarah Gauger, is the sister of the young victim of synthetic drugs.
“My brother (Victor Orlando Woolson) was a great young man. He graduated from Mexico High School with an advanced Regents diploma and was enrolled at Cayuga Community College to pursue a degree in criminal justice,” Gauger said. “My brother’s initials are VOW and I do vow to use my knowledge and my grief to educate others.”
He bought the synthetic drugs because they were legal and sold in a store, she noted.
However, he became addicted and “it changed his personality and ultimately caused his death. He never smiled again and he never got to say goodbye,” she said, adding that he was still able to purchase them in stores even after health bans, federal bans and state bans were in place.
As a mother she is worried “what these sick people are going to think of next. This new bill makes selling (drugs) to anyone more harsh, especially harsh for selling it to someone under 18. Let’s not give these smoke shop owners or anyone else the chance to make money from something so deadly.”
“This legislation, when passed, will provide more tools in this war on synthetics, helping to stay one step ahead of the drug dealers to keep these poisons off the shelves of stores in this state. I want to thank everyone involved for keeping this issue front and center and helping to prevent another family from the pain and destruction these poisons can cause,” said Woolson.
Gesturing to the row of trees separating the OCJ property from St. Peter’s Cemetery, she somberly said, “My son is buried just over those trees.”
Synthetics are not drugs like cocaine and heroin – they are much more deadly, she said.
“They’re poison, random poison toxic chemicals mixed together masquerading as incense and deodorant. They are very dangerous,” she said.
She also vowed to “continue this war on synthetic poisons for as long as it takes to get effective state legislation into law.”
Her other daughter, Bonnie Caza, noted that they were at the event to help spread the word about the new legislation.
She encouraged the public to contact their state assembly and senate members are urge them to approve the legislation.
“The passage of this legislation is vital to the safety and well-being of our entire state,” she said. “Please, take action of this.”
Assemblyman Barclay thanked the family for giving the issue “a human face.”
Michele Caliva, administrative director of SUNY Upstate Poison Control Center, said she has seen abuse on the rise and is pleased state and county representatives continue to address this public health concern.
“The Upstate New York Poison Center saw a significant increase in cases of synthetic drug abuse in 2012 and we continue to see numerous cases in 2013. So often the abusers of these agents do not realize or anticipate the intensity of symptoms that are produced from these drugs. We are seeing cases of extreme agitation, increase in body temperature, violent behavior, hallucinations and paranoia which for some have lasted for days,” Caliva said.
They have conducted more than 200 educational outreach programs (on synthetics) to healthcare professionals throughout the state.
She also thanked the Woolson family for its courage and generosity to get behind the issue.
Lee Livermore, public education coordinator for Upstate Medical University – Upstate New York Poison Center, echoed her sentiments.
He displayed some of the packaging of the drugs currently out on the street.
“This one called Scooby Snacks I found this morning while I was taking my dog out for a walk,” he said.
To reach the Upstate New York Poison Center, call 1-800-222-1222.
Sheriff Todd said he was glad to see this subject be brought to light again.
“Though you cannot legally sell these drugs in retail outlets any longer in Oswego County due to the local ban enacted by Oswego County, this remains a problem for our area and the state, as dealers and users are finding their way around our current law,” he said. “Having this law in place would allow us to act faster when a new drug comes on the scene and better protect the public. We need laws that work, and can get ahead of underground chemists as best as we can. (This is) a great legislation.”
When officers arrive on the scene where someone is reportedly under the influence of synthetics, “We never know what their reaction is going to be. We have people that go from calm and talking with us to punching us in the face. We have them when they’re completely out of control already,” he said. “Our job is to not only protect the public, but to protect the person involved. We take some great risks in doing that.”
The risks aren’t just to the road patrol. Subjects have had reactions a day or two or a week later, while their in custody, the sheriff added.
“Most of the time, their reaction is just complete violence. We’ve had people we pepper sprayed three times and did absolutely nothing to them. We’ve Tasered them and they have said, ‘hit me again, that was nice.’ They don’t feel the pain. There is just no controlling. It’s just overwhelming because we don’t know what we are dealing with.”