By JOSH NEWTON
Tuesday’s seizure of thousands of packages of synthetic cannabinoids by Drug Task Force agents, and an educational seminar that coincidentally fell on the same day, has local parents and grandparents looking for ways to take action.
Callers told the Daily Press Wednesday that at least one local business had pulled from its shelves all synthetic cannabinoids – sold as incense or potpourri, but known as a form of “fake marijuana” – following the DTF’s service of a search warrant at Outer Zone on Tuesday.
Several parents also shared their concerns to the Press about the ability of children to obtain spice. They worried that children were telling their parents they were going into convenience stores to buy soft drinks, but in reality were picking up the dangerous substance.
Cherokee County Juvenile Court Director Cindy Farmer said Tahlequah has at least three “head shops” where the substances have been sold, along with at least one convenience store.
The products are labeled “not for human consumption” and thus avoid regulation by the FDA, but Farmer said the side effects are more dangerous than marijuana. While some may experience no immediate problems after using spice, others have passed out or been stricken with other serious medical conditions. Some have even died.
Synthetic substances can only be sold to those age 18 years and older, but investigators said younger people are getting their hands on the products too easily. Consumption of the chemically-treated leaves is illegal, and authorities believe the majority of people who buy intend to use as an alternative to other narcotics.
“There’s no doubt in my mind [the head shops] know good and well what these people are buying it for,” said Cherokee County Undersheriff Jason Chennault. “We had several people walk up Tuesday [at Outer Zone] with no ID, and they said they shop at the store all the time without identification. They acted like it was no problem.”
Chennault and Farmer both believe there’s a discrepancy in the way manufacturers label the substances as incense or potpourri.
One to 3 grams of synthetic products can cost $10 to $30, depending on the brand and scent, while incense sticks sold as an aroma product are often bundled in packages of 10 at other retailers for little more than $1.
“Why would I spend $30 for 3 grams of ‘incense’ when I can go buy 10 sticks of incense for my house for $1.23?” said Farmer.
Farmer said children can get their hands on synthetic products with ease; friends will often make the purchase for them.
“Youth have a code of silence,” said Farmer. “Not a one of them will tell you who bought it for them. When the products first came out, kids would go in and get these products, and we didn’t know what was really going on. Before we knew about it, kids could go in and buy it. Now you’ve got to be 18 to buy it.”
Chennault said the best indicator a child – or anyone – is using spice products may be the distinctive aroma.
“There will be a smell in the room, on their clothes,” said Chennault. “It’s hard to get off of your clothes.”
Packaging is also easy to identify because of the bright colors, unique names and foil containers. Chennault says those who are concerned or know a child is using spice should contact the proper law enforcement agency.
“Local agencies all have someone on hand who know about spice and can assist with this issue,” said Chennault.
Farmer recommends area residents who are concerned about spice contact their local city councilor and state legislators. She has done so a number of times in recent years, and last month sent a letter to several lawmakers, again asking for their help in stopping the sale of synthetic cannabinoids in Oklahoma.
She’s also been working with the city council to find a way to address the problems.
Tahlequah Mayor Jason Nichols said this week he and the council support finding a way to rid the city of synthetic substances, but several attorneys claim the city cannot adopt an ordinance that restricts the sale of such products.
“This is probably the most frustrating issue I’ve had to deal with during my time as mayor, and before that on the council,” said Nichols. “There’s a very powerless feeling for us – the four councilors and myself – because we’ve run up against a legal barrier we cannot penetrate.”
Nichols said an opinion passed down by the state attorney general a year ago indicates municipalities do not have the authority to regulate pseudoephedrine.
“We can’t regulate this substance under that same kind of interpretation of state statutes,” he said. “Where the state has taken action, we cannot, and it’s very, very annoying to have to constantly say, ‘We’re helpless, we’re powerless; I’d love to help you, but I can’t.’ That’s the answer we have to give.”
Nichols said the council has talked with city staff to try finding other ways to eliminate the sale and use of synthetic substances.
“Cindy [Farmer] recommended trying to approach it through public nuisance. One attorney told me no way, another told me experimental at best,” said Nichols. “We’ve given consideration to doing minor things like business licensing, but alas, it can’t be done. We know this is dangerous, we know this needs to be done away with. If the state would give us the authority, or the flexibility to deal with it in some way, we would. With Cindy’s help, we’ll eventually get there and we’ll put a stop to this.”
State Rep. Mike Brown, D-Tahlequah, has also heard the concerns and believes state lawmakers will introduce bills this session that address the products.
“Law enforcement is in a pickle not being able to have the money to test what’s being picked up in the head shops without going through the [Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation], so we’re trying to either make it illegal by name – an alternative that some states have done – or find some other avenue,” said Brown. “Drug dealers are always trying to stay one step in front of law enforcement, and it’s a continual effort to change those and tweak those laws.”
Brown said legislators will take a look at the efforts of several other states, see what is working in those places, and move forward with its own suggested remedies.
“There’s a lot of harm being done to our youth by these substances,” said Brown.
He said legislators on both sides of the aisle are aware of the problems created by spice, and are all willing to tackle the issue this year.
“By all means, they are aware of it, but what’s the best avenue that law enforcement, the OSBI, the state can work with and not overburden the state with costs, but allow law enforcement to do their jobs?” said Brown. “We have some differences of opinion on how to do that.”
Until more action can be taken for legislators, Farmer believes parents and guardians must be involved in their children’s lives and talk about the dangers of spice.
“What we as a community can do is be aware; educate your kids and speak up,” said Farmer. “Let legislators know you want something done about it.”