ELIZABETHTOWN - More than 200 people, mostly teenage students, gathered on the lawn in front the Essex County government complex Monday morning to support a ban on synthetic marijuana.
The event was organized by the county district attorney's office and Community Resources Department. County lawmakers, community members and students from across the region turned out for the rally, which concluded with a march around Elizabethtown.
These students and officials want the state to criminalize the sale and possession of synthetic marijuana, and the state Senate passed legislation on Monday to do just that. The bill now awaits approval in the Assembly.
Members of Saranac Lake High School’s Students Against Destructive Decisions organization march in a rally against synthetic marijuana in Elizabethtown on Monday.
(Enterprise photo — Chris Morris)
"A few short months ago, a public meeting right here in this very building, in our county, started a momentous movement across our state to try and ban the now infamous K-2, Spice, Posh - whatever word you want to call it," said District Attorney Kristy Sprague. "That little county meeting exploded into a grassroots movement that is being recognized not only by state officials but by federal officials."
Back in January, Lewis town Supervisor David Blades urged the county Board of Supervisors to address what he called a growing epidemic: the use of synthetic marijuana by teens and adults across the North Country.
The fake pot-like substance is packaged under names like "herbal incense" and "potpourri," and brands like K-2, Spice, Demon and Kush are sold legally, on the Internet and in stores, to buyers over the age of 18. When smoked or ingested, they give users a high similar to that of cannabis, but the side effects can be dangerous - increased heart rate, paranoia, psychosis, vomiting and seizures - according to law enforcement and public health officials.
Since Blades first brought the issue before the county, officials have hosted forums in area schools to spread the word about the dangers of synthetic cannabis products. Some students like Brody Hooper, a junior at Elizabethtown-Lewis Central School, have taken part in those presentations.
Hooper was recognized for his efforts at Monday's rally.
"I was really excited to come here today, hoping that legislation was going to be passed against this," he said.
Sam Politi, a student at Willsboro Central School, also spoke at Monday's rally. He said synthetic marijuana isn't just a drug - it's also a poison.
"I have witnessed friends seize and foam at the mouth from using K-2, and it's (one of) the scariest moments of my life," Politi said. "But I'm not speaking to preach my opinions on drugs and anti-drug use, but to denounce the poison that has harmed kids and adults alike. Action needs to be taken, and legislation needs to be signed, to eradicate this atrocity from our young and growing nation."
Essex County Sheriff Richard Cutting told the crowd that synthetic marijuana was never meant for human consumption. He read testimonials from people who used the products, including one that was written by a person who saw a friend end up in the hospital with brain damage.
Cutting said one of the worst duties a police officer has to perform is speaking with parents after something bad happens to their child.
"As I look at this group today, I see promise, and I see a concern for this very dangerous substance - a real concern and a willingness to do something about it," he said. "For almost all of you, I can say I don't know your parents, simply because I haven't met them. My plea to you is, please, let me meet them at a ball game, or at the store, or at the fair; don't let me meet them as that officer knocking on their door late at night."
Katie Romano is a senior at Saranac Lake High School and vice president of Students Against Destructive Decisions. She told the Enterprise her group has been trying to educate students in Saranac Lake about fake pot products because people are getting hurt when they use them.
"They kind of made them to make an excuse up for real marijuana, saying that it's OK, and for people to say, 'Oh, you can do this, but you can't do marijuana,'" Romano said. "It's doing the same thing, though."
Sprague said the U.S. Attorney's Office has recognized Essex County's efforts to combat synthetic marijuana. She said lobbying by county officials like Jay town Supervisor Randy Douglas helped push state lawmakers to pass legislation criminalizing the sale and possession of fake pot brands. Before that bill was passed on Monday, the state took civil action to ban the products.
Sprague said the best way to combat dangerous substances is by recognizing the problem before it becomes an epidemic.
"And I am proud to say that Essex County stood up, we recognized the problems in our own communities, banded together in a united front, and took steps to rid our local stores of these poisons months before the civil ban," she said.