Tahlequah Daily Press

March 7, 2013

‘Spice’ craze puts locals at odds

By JOSH NEWTON
Staff Writer

TAHLEQUAH — Tahlequah city councilors heard empassioned pleas from citizens this week who demanded leaders take action against the growing problems associated with synthetic cannabinoids known as “spice” or “incense.”

Cindy Farmer has long pushed for the council to pass an ordinance to help stop the sale of spice, but she was previously told the city had no such power.

She again spoke before the council Monday evening, and brought with her a number of local citizens and officials.

One mother fought back tears as she described her 15-year-old son’s experiment with spice.

“This kid is in [advanced-placement] classes, sports,” said the mother, who asked not to be identified to protect her child. “He started experimenting, and I, blindly, honestly, did not know. I would smell the smell on him, and I really thought it was a sports cream that he would use on his muscles.”

The mother, who was a registered nurse for years, struggled with her emotions as she told councilors she and her physician husband were forced to sit and watch her son when he first took spice, and had to remind him to breath about every 45 minutes.

“We didn’t know what to do,” she said. “We sat there and just didn’t know.”

The teen went through a treatment program with Farmer. He’s back in sports, and his grades in school are up.

“I got my kid back, but with an effect,” the mother said. “He now hallucinates. We don’t know if that will ever go away. We don’t know.”

She urged the city council to “just try” to find an ordinance to put a stop to the spice problem in the city.

“In the future, it might be ruled unconstitutional, but let’s try, because in the meantime, we may stop one more kid from getting it,” she said.

Another local mother also fought back tears as she explained how her son recently found a young woman non-responsive. The girl had taken a synthetic substance.

“[She] had taken two hits, if you will, of this substance,” the mother said. “Thank God she did not die. She said she felt as though every nerve in her body was on fire; she could not lift her arms, she could not speak, she could not stand. Fortunately, my son found her in time to take her to the hospital. We have to protect the youth in our community, period. My question is, do we wait until a child dies and bring suit against the city because we did nothing when we knew there was a problem?”

Tahlequah High School Principal Jeff Thorne related the growing spice usage to the level of denial by parents of young people who are using it. Thorne said one parent called him to say his student could not be punished because the synthetic substance he had was “legal.”

“‘If he wants to use it, I’m behind him,’” the parent told Thorne.

Thorne recalled another incident last summer when a student told others he took “Mean Green,” one of the products sold in local stores.

“Two or three students came running in. There was a young man out on the asphalt at about noon, and he was beating the asphalt with his fists,” Thorne said. “They tried to stop him, but they couldn’t, so they came and got me.”

Thorne said the student was sitting in a stupor when he arrived outside. An ambulance was called when the student was unresponsive to Thorne.

Thorne said the boy’s father denied anything had happened.

“His father said he didn’t do anything,” said Thorne. “He was beating the pavement with his fists, and the father said it didn’t happen. So a level of denial and the level of harm in our community go hand-in-hand.”

Farmer asked the city council to consider passing an ordinance to regulate the products, or to consider a way to require local businesses selling the substances to pay fees and have licenses.

“We are a ‘city of firsts,’ and I – and we – demand that you, as our city officials, do something about it,” said Farmer. “We as a city have a responsibility to our citizenry to do something about it. It’s high time we do it.”

But City Attorney Park Medearis said the city has little to no power unless the state of Oklahoma acts first.

“It is my inescapable legal conclusion that municipalities do not have legislative powers to make illegal what the state has not determined to be illegal,” Medearis said. “Any city who attempts to do this is trying to add to the Oklahoma statutes on the scheduled drugs that are illegal, and municipalities do not possess the legislative power... .”

Farmer argued state statutes and the city charter have mechanisms in place that would allow the city to act, particularly to label spice as a “nuisance.”

“It’s not a public nuisance, with all due respect, even though it is a big problem,” said Medearis. “It does not arise to the point of being a public nuisance, because not everyone is affected by it.”

Farmer began to describe the definition of a “nuisance,” but Medearis said he’d already read what she was looking at.

“With all due respect, I believe you have misapplied and misargued the point you are trying to advance,” said Medearis. “This problem is located in Oklahoma City. What you and people who are similarly situated need to do is contact our state representatives and ask them to introduce legislation on the state level... .”

Medearis said it would be “monumentally irresponsible” to suggest the city council could enact an ordinance that he knows has “no hope of passing constitutional muster.”

“I completely sympathize with your problem, I completely agree with what you’re saying, and don’t misunderstand my comments to make it look like, oh, I’m in favor of drugs and in favor of bad things,” said Medearis. “I just simply have a sworn duty to advise my clients to advance arguments that are within the limits of the law.”

Medearis said if the city passes an ordinance it knows it shouldn’t, those who are impacted by the regulation might have a civil rights case, and could sue the city.

Mayor Jason Nichols said he, Medearis and Farmer have previously discussed the issue. Nichols said he consulted several other attorneys and received the same answer.

Councilors agreed they can adopt a resolution to send to state leaders demanding they take action. Ward 2 Councilor Jack Spears and Ward 4 Councilor Linda Spyres both expressed interest in taking a look at a proposed ordinance, despite Medearis’ advice.

Spyres asked Farmer to provide her with a suggested ordinance for the next council meeting.

“I’m just frustrated,” said Farmer.

“There has not been any effective legislation, to date, that prohibits the sale of these drug-laden products. We as a city are allowing the sale of these products with the knowledge that there is no other purpose for the product. These are known products that harm our citizenry.”

Medearis again stressed the need for local citizens to lobby state leaders to “advance this argument.”

“What’s going to have to happen, in my estimation, is the Oklahoma Legislature is going to have to come up with some statute which includes this fake incense that’s sprayed with synthetic cannabinoids, and make it illegal, and make it where law enforcement agencies ... can effectively prosecute these people, lock them up, and fine them,” he said.