The state Department of Health, not waiting for legislative action, has banned the sale and distribution of the substance known as synthetic marijuana because, the agency says, it is harmful and toxic. Those who fail to comply with the order could be subject to fines and other penalties.
The fake pot, which is sold as incense or potpourri, is known by such brand names as Mr. Nice Guy, K2, Spice, Galaxy Gold and Smiley Dog. It can have numerous negative side effects including increased heart rate, hypertension, seizure, loss of consciousness, acute renal failure and death, according to the DOH.
Dr. Nirav Shah, state commissioner of health, sent special alerts to local health departments, emergency departments and other healthcare providers to make them aware of the dangers of these products.
Asked what the penalties for violating the ban would be, DOH spokeswoman Chanel Caraway did not give a specific answer. “Our immediate goal is ensuring that retailers are aware of the ban,” she said in an email. “Stores that fail to comply may be subject to civil and or criminal fines.”
Synthetic weed is a mix of herbs and flowers that is sprayed with research chemicals, according to Herman Lozada, a resident of Rosedale and specialist in the drug addiction field for more than 25 years. The substance was created in laboratory settings and was never meant for human consumption, Lozada said.
Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) has legislation pending to make the drug illegal nationwide — the Synthetic Drug Control Act of 2011. It would amend the Controlled Substances Act to classify fake weed as a Schedule 1 drug, putting it in the same category as real marijuana, heroine and mescaline. The Drug Enforcement Administration has already done so via a temporary order that will expire in about a year.
City Councilman Ruben Wills (D-Jamaica) introduced a nonbinding resolution on March 28 in support of the federal bill. The measure has five co-sponsors from Queens, Council members Leroy Comrie (D-St. Albans), Peter Vallone Jr. (D-Astoria), Julissa Ferreras (D-East Elmhurst), James Sanders Jr. (D-Laurelton) and Karen Koslowitz (D-Forest Hills).
On Friday Wills said of the state ban, “I think it’s a step in the right direction, and I’m glad something is being done sooner than later.”
In an effort to raise awareness Wills has sent his staffers to bodegas in the district asking owners to sign pledges that state they will not sell the product, and to prominently display the signs in their windows. So far nearly 40 out of the 58 merchants have agreed, he said.
Some 40 other states already have laws that classify the substance as an illegal drug. It is sold in colorful packaging, sometimes festooned with cartoon characters, and clearly marked “not for human consumption.” Wills called the marketing “diabolical,” because it targets young people.
The chemicals used in synthetic marijuana are a minimum of five times as potent as the THC found in the real thing, can be highly addictive and have led to increased emergency room visits nationwide, Lozada said.
The product often goes undetected in drug tests, he added, because while it can be sprayed with some 15 chemicals, only about eight can be detected in toxicology screenings.
Calls to New York City’s Poison Control Center about synthetic marijuana-related illnesses are skyrocketing, according to the city DOH, going from four in 2010 to 71 in 2011 and 44 so far this year.About a third of the victims have been children. They experienced symptoms such as shortness of breath, dizziness, vomiting, high blood pressure, hallucinations and seizures.
“Because they are sold in stores, people may believe they are safe, and use of these drugs is increasing rapidly in New York City,” City Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley said in a prepared statement. “With this order we are getting them off store shelves and telling everyone in New York City to never use them.”
Community Board 13 was the first board to pass a resolution calling on lawmakers to criminalize synthetic marijuana, according to its chairman, Bryan Block. It was brought to the body’s attention by Kangela Moore, chairwoman of the Youth and Education Committee, who noticed the fake pot being sold at area stores.
“I’m elated that it’s been banned,” Moore said Friday. “It means our children will be safe from this poison and it will no longer be readily available at bodegas. I hope the federal ban will come to pass soon.”