PULASKI, NY — Synthetic drugs continue to pose a significant public health threat in communities across the country. Earlier this month, more than 100 people were hospitalized within a short time period for synthetic drug overdose in New Haven, Connecticut. Health officials there issued a public health alert, warning people of the dangers of the drugs after several people convulsed and collapsed at a public park. This was not an isolated incident and our region is no stranger to the impact of synthetics drugs. Last May, in Syracuse about 20 people overdosed on synthetics near the Rescue Mission and, after experiencing similar reactions, had to be treated at local hospitals. In April, public health warnings were issued across the country after a multi-state outbreak of synthetic cannabinoids users experienced severe life-threatening bleeding after using the drug. Health officials believe that the batches of synthetic drugs were laced with rat poison or blood thinners. Though cases where multiple people overdose at the same time from the same drug draw more media attention, overdoses are ongoing issue.
Initially, when synthetic cannabinoid drugs started making its way into communities it was often sold in convenience stores or head shops and labeled as “potpourri” to mask its intended use as a drug. Using flashy packaging, often featuring cartoon characters on it, the drugs were portrayed as a “legal” alternative to marijuana and it appealed to many users because it would not appear on drug tests. But as we now know, these drugs are far from safe. According to health officials, the drugs can be up to 200 times more potent than THC – the chemical in marijuana that causes users to get high. Further, many health officials have claimed that synthetic drugs are becoming more powerful and unpredictable making them tough to treat. Some of the common side effects are psychotic episodes, aggression, dangerously high blood pressure, loss of consciousness and other cardiac issues.
Due to federal and state actions regarding synthetics, there is a reduction in sales in convenience stores and head shops. While there are cases where law enforcement continue to find illegal distribution occurring in stores, the sales have been mainly driven underground and are being sold on the street like other illegal drugs. Synthetics are often cheap which appeals to users and the penalties for possession do not bear much of a consequence.
Synthetics are a fast-moving target for law enforcement and state and federal policymakers. In order for law enforcement to penalize either the drug dealer or user, the drug first must be listed as a controlled substance. In the case of synthetics, underground chemists are constantly altering the drugs to avoid using compounds that are listed on the controlled substance list. Our laws need to close this loophole. Authorizing the state Commissioner of Health to add chemicals to the controlled substance list as needed, rather than waiting for the legislature to add each chemical compound is a sensible way to address this. Another feasible alternative would be to enact a drug mimicking law. Both would eliminate the lag that currently exists in banning these dangerous drugs and allow the state to better respond to the chemical swapping that the manufacturers are doing to shirk the law.
Many state lawmakers, particularly in the Assembly, are simply opposed to creating any new criminal penalties for the selling or possession of drugs based on their political ideology. In addressing the drug crisis, they only want to tackle it from one side –through treatment. While we should not discount treating addiction as an important component to addressing substance abuse, one also cannot ignore the fact that dealers are profiting from selling dangerous drugs like synthetics and destroying lives in the process. Moreover, how can we expect to see a reduction in substance abuse if we do not appropriately penalize those who traffic these drugs. The answer is, we won’t. Despite these challenges, this issue is very much a priority for me and it is one that I will continue to fight in Albany.
If you have any questions or comments regarding this or any other state issue, please contact me. My office can be reached by mail at 200 North Second Street, Fulton, New York 13069, by e-mail at email@example.com, or by calling (315) 598-5185. You also can friend me, Assemblyman Barclay, on Facebook.