February 6, 2012

Meeting of the minds


ELIZABETHTOWN — When Sarah Sandberg tried synthetic marijuana, she had a seizure and wound up in the hospital.

"It was the scariest thing that ever happened to me," said the teen, a junior at Elizabethtown-Lewis Central School.

Sandberg was among many who met recently to develop a game plan for educating people about the inherent dangers of "Spice" substances such as K2 and to encourage lawmakers to ban them.

In recent weeks, a grass-roots effort to accomplish both those goals has been gathering steam.

People don't know how dangerous the substances are, said Brody Hooper, an ELCS senior.

"(I) was surprised to know how much the community didn't know about this problem."


The substances are sold as incense under many names, including K2, Armageddon, Black Mamba, Cloud 9, Devil's Breath and Mad Hatter.

It is not intended for human consumption, say local retailers who have them on their shelves. And they are legal.

But people smoke the stuff and infuse it as a kind of tea.

"I see my friends' parents smoking with them," Sandberg said.

After what happened to her, she warns people about what can happen.

"You don't know if your life will end or you will be permanently damaged," she said. "Some of my friends got scared when they saw what happened with me, but there are still some that go to (a local store) and buy it."

Coordinated and chaired by Essex County's Office of Community Resources Director Michael Mascarenas, the meeting also featured input from law enforcement, the Essex County Department of Public Health and youth advocates and parents, many of whom are part of Bring Essex County's Strengths Together (BEST).


Hooper volunteers in the Emergency Department at Elizabethtown Community Hospital, so has first-hand knowledge of how such substances can cause adverse reactions.

Synthetic marijuana, he said, using a PowerPoint presentation for emphasis, can cause rapid heart rate; heart attack; hallucinations; severe agitation; loss of consciousness; dementia; psychotic episodes; tremors and seizures.

Its effects last longer than marijuana, as they remain in the system up to three days, he said.

Using synthetic marijuana, Hooper said, is "like playing Russian roulette," because there's such a range of symptoms it can cause.

Also, synthetic marijuana abusers build up a tolerance and thus need more to get the kind of high they crave; its effects may be different each time it's consumed.

"You can take it one time and think it is really bad, or another time and find it is not doing much," Hooper said.


Essex County District Attorney Kristy Sprague said she had been in contact with state legislators and that "Betty (Sen. Betty Little) is happy we are at the forefront on this. This is how laws are passed. We get the energy and momentum going.

"They want to hear from people about personal experiences," she said. Doug Terbeek and Mac MacDevitt of the Substance Abuse Prevention Team of Essex County, pointed out that this is not just a teen issue, as the 18 to 25 age group seems to have the highest percentage of users nationwide.


New York State Police doesn't monitor legal substances, said Capt. John Tibbitts.

"(But) there is a lot of stuff I have been hearing, and it is being found with other substances."

"A part of this scares me to death," said Sprague.

"It looks like Pop Rocks. People smoke it and could care less because it's legal.

"Until a couple of weeks ago, I had only heard of it and didn't know much (about it)."

"The people who sell this stuff want to make money," Tibbitts said. "The most powerful thing you hear is economics.

"Stop shopping until they stop selling," he suggested. "You will then have won a battle.

"You are making it harder to get the stuff."


Lewis Town Supervisor David Blades, who spent 22 years in law enforcement, pointed out that scare tactics don't work. Instead, it's vital to educate students to the dangers and to get parents to understand their role.

"We all need to get on board and be part of the solution," he said.

The role of education was echoed by several speakers, especially the idea of having students spread the message.

Other suggestions included making informational materials available to schools, Social Services recipients and health-care providers; and to find out which establishments sell the products and urge them to voluntarily cease sales.

If that fails, it was suggested, boycott the merchants.

After the meeting, Sandberg said her bad experience with K2 was the first time she had ever smoked it.

Her friends, she said, didn't want to call for an ambulance because they were afraid of the consequences.

"I don't know what would have happened if my boyfriend wasn't there to drive me to the emergency room," she said.

"Every kid has to know about this, so I decided to tell my story even though when it first happened I was embarrassed."

To offer input or learn more, call Mascarenas at 873-3426.

Email Alvin Reiner at: