OSWEGO, NY – Even though they haven’t made headlines in recent months, ‘bath salts’ and other synthetic drugs are still readily available in Oswego County.
The heavy crackdown this summer was a good thing and a bad thing, according to Lee Livermore, public education coordinator for Upstate Medical University – Upstate New York Poison Center.
They have gotten the product removed from the shelves of head shops, gas stations and other places where it was sold in colorful packages with cutsie names, he said. However, it has gone underground now, he added.
To help educate the public as to what these substances are and what is being done to curb their use, Oswego High School hosted “Not in our schools, Not in our community” Tuesday night in the theater.
Besides Livermore, an eight-member panel was on hand to answer questions from the audience.
The MC for the night was Bill Foley, district clerk.
He recalled one night this summer when emergency crews raced by his house, responding to a drowning in nearby Lake Ontario. It was later learned that synthetic drugs were involved.
Sarah Gauger, the sister of the young victim, was part of Tuesday’s panel. She is on a mission now to educate everyone about the lethal potential of these products.
Problems with these drugs surfaced late last year and by this spring it was more common, according to Oswego County District Attorney Greg Oaks.
Back then, law enforcement really didn’t have the tools to combat the drugs.
Livermore explained a little about Upstate Poison Control Center. It covers 54 counties upstate. The only other center covers New York City, Westchester County and Long Island.
The center is a telephone triage 24 – 7 – 365 operation that is staffed by experts, he said.
According to Livermore, 60 percent of all the calls are in regard to children less than 5 years old who have suffered an “unintentional” poisoning.
However, calls about ‘bath salts’ and other synthetic drugs have risen sharply of late.
Synthetic basically means it is manmade, he explained.
“Designer drugs are specifically a category of drugs that are designed to bypass the law,” he said.
Manufacturers of the substances were able to legally sell the product by continually changing its formula; as soon as one is banned, they just alter it slightly in essence creating an entirely new product.
And, in some cases, just by adding warnings like “Not For Human Consumption” to the package have allowed them to be sold over the counter, he added.
“Any street drug is never 100 percent pure,” he said.
At first, the penalties regarding bath salts (a violation) were to 15 days in jail and under the public health law a $250 fine, Oaks said.
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.
Jeff Kinney of the Oswego County Drug Task Force said he has seen people who were on these substances and “were shells of human beings. They were emaciated.”
For the first responders, these drugs “were a nightmare. They were going non-stop much of the summer,” he said.
“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,” 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.
One of the key reasons these drugs are out there is because people are making money off them, “They are making tons of money,” Livermore said.
Just because these drugs affect one person one way doesn’t mean it will be the same for the next person.
“Any time you’re messing with this, it’s like playing Russian Roulette,” he said. “Not a good game. In reality, these drugs are poison. It’s about time we start calling them what they are.”
Some of these drugs were originally developed as a potential drug to be used for AIDS and cancer patients, he pointed out.
“They were originally a research drug. But the differences to what’s happening with some of these is that most drugs that are researched go through lab testing, they’ll use mice or rats. In the case of designer drugs, that lab rats are human beings,” he said. “Which is the most horrible thing that you can imagine.”
Some of the “fake marijuana” currently on the streets is anywhere from 300 to 800 times more potent than what regular marijuana might be, he said.
There is no quality control associated with the production of these substances.
That is why potency can differ widely from pack to pack and brand to brand, he said, adding, “It’s not tested for safety at any level.”
The emergence of these drugs pretty much caught everyone off guard, he admitted.
Everybody is different and so are their reactions to these materials, he said. They still don’t know enough about them, what many of them actually are, so that they can create an antidote.
“There is still a lot we don’t know. The best we can do in treating these patients now to sedate them, until it works itself out of their system. There is no antidote, we can’t save you. We can treat the symptoms and just have to let it run its course.”
He encouraged the audience to educate themselves and others, especially their children as to the harm these drugs can do.
“This is just the tip of the iceberg. It could be in your neighborhood and you aren’t aware of it,” he cautioned.
Education is key, but so is stricter laws, he said.
Karen Hoffman, of Farnham, urged the nearly 80 people scattered around the theater to be proactive and talk to five other people and ask them to talk to three other people.
“You’re the educators,” she said. “Together we can get the word out about the dangers of these drugs. We cannot just sit back and say this is not going to happen. It’s to there, it’s going to happen. You’re the people in the community that are going to make a change.”
Veronica Baker of Oswego agreed that the young people need to be made more aware of the potentially life-threatening dangers of things like bath salts.
She said she’d like to see programs done in the middle and high schools.
“Our young people deserve to be told the facts and receive the knowledge they need to help them make better decisions,” she said.
One teen in the audience suggested doing warning commercials, like the ones for cigarettes.
The manufacturers of these drugs “are profiting off of other people’s pain and misery,” he said. If people saw what these drugs really do, like those graphic anti-smoking commercials showed the impact of cigarettes, they might think twice about using bath salts. Some teens still think it’s a joke, he added.
Hoffman said Farnham would assist him in making a public service announcement, perhaps with the help of the OHS TV station.
“We need tougher laws so the people making, selling and using these products don’t get just a slap on the wrist,” Livermore said. “These drugs are putting many people in harm’s way – first responders, police, the medical community, everybody. They are selling time bombs.”
“Bath salts” has become a slang expression for man-made drugs, he said.
Some reactions to ‘bath salts’ include agitation, severe paranoia, chest pains, high blood pressure and violent behavior.
The reactions to synthetic marijuana are similar. And in both cases, death is also a possibility.
Jiancheng Huang, Oswego County Health Director, said if just one person dies due to bath salts “it is too much and we need to prevent it.”
He urged people to lead healthier lives by being more active and not smoking.
If teens see other teens buying or using bath salts they should tell them they “are risking their lives just to make someone else rich. It’s not worth it,” he said.
According to Livermore, in 2010 there were 10 calls to the poison control center about synthetic marijuana cases. That jumped to 184 in 2011.
There were no calls about ‘bath salts’ in 2010 and 117 last year.
From June to August of 2012, there have been 333 calls, Livermore said.
To reach the Upstate New York Poison Center, call 1-800-222-1222.