State Sen. Betty Little talks of the dangers associated with synthetic marijuana and so-called ‘bath salts’ during an April 30 press conference held hours before the state Senate passed a measure banning the substances. State legislators and others backing up Little in her crusade are (left to right) Sen. Patricia Ritchie (R-Watertown), Sen. Joe Griffo (R-Rome), Sen. John Flanagan (R-Smithtown), Adirondack regional BOCES Superintendent James Dexter, , Sen. Marty Golden (R-Brooklyn), Warren County District Attorney Kate Hogan, and Assemblyman Michael Cusick (D-Staten Island).
In an overwhelming vote Monday April 30, the state Senate passed a bill proposed by Sen. Betty Little of Queensbury that criminalizes the sale, possession or distribution of synthetic marijuana, so-called herbal incense, and hallucinogenic bath salts.
The vote was 54-2. A similar measure is now under consideration by the state Assembly Codes Committee. To become law, both legislative bodies must vote in approval, which could theoretically occur as early as late June. The measure would not be effective until at least late September, if approved in the Assembly.
Warren County District Attorney Kate Hogan and regional BOCES superintendent James Dexter addressed legislators April 30 and aired their concerns about the substances in a press conference held prior to the Senate vote.
Dexter said the use of synthetic marijuana by area high school students has increased dramatically, and the law was needed to give schools the power to ban it from local campuses.
“Students who use this fake weed can’t learn — they’re agitated, aggressive, paranoid, and unmanageable,” he said, noting that some students in grades 5 through 9 are using it..
Dexter added that students have ended up arrested, home on suspension, or in emergency centers as a result of the drugs.
“Students use the drug, and their bodies are not returning to normal,” he said, noting the lingering effects.
Warren County District Attorney Kate Hogan said the drugs have prompted serious crimes, and their use has spiraled in all age groups.
“Case after case, we see otherwise non-violent people committing horrific acts, such as the 18-year-old who stabbed his mother repeatedly,” she said. Hogan also noted that in another case, Richard A. “Psycho” Velazquez slammed a woman’s face into a mirror, choked her and dragged her down a flight of stairs as she held her infant child — after he smoked synthetic marijuana. Velazquez blamed the substance as prompting the vicious assault. Just last week, he was sentenced to 10 years in jail.
Little introduced the bill in March, as Warren County — impatient with the state legislative process — drafted its own law criminalizing synthetic marijuana. That county law is expected to be passed after a public hearing May 18.
While state legislators were tackling the drug issue in Albany, high school students in Essex County held a rally at the county Government Center in Elizabethtown in support of a ban in their county. Pupils from Elizabethtown-Lewis Central School joined students from Westport, Willsboro, Schroon Lake, Keene, Moriah, Crown Point and Ticonderoga schools in the mass rally.
Betty Little said April 30 that she first heard of the threat of synthetic marijuana last fall from the Glens Falls Police Department. Weeks later, when teenagers personally told her about how it prompted violence, caused seizures, hallucinations and extreme anxiety, she was convinced it should be criminalized. She also heard from Dexter about how it was becoming prevalent in schools, and was causing violent behavior among students who had never before been in trouble.
“Kids have told me this stuff is far worse than marijuana,” she said. “I’m happy the bill had overwhelming support today.”
Sen. John Flanagan (R-East Northport) co-sponsored the bill with Little.
The so-called bath salts, also named in the ban, are chemically related to methamphetamines and ecstasy. Law enforcement and medical officials say that ingesting these substances also cause serious physical and psychological harm — and have been linked to criminal activity.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a law to ban the sale of “bath salts” last year, and just last month the state Health Department banned the retail sale and distribution of synthetic marijuana — but possession of these substances — still available over the Internet or outside the state — continues to be legal.
Little and others noted that the use of synthetic marijuana and bath salts both pose serious health hazards — some of which are irreversible. Use of the substances have been linked to convulsions, heart attacks, and kidney failure.
The Senate bill, which criminalizes possession and use as well as sale, has garnered the support of Assemblyman Mike Cusick (D-Staten Island), who is sponsoring the bill in the state Assembly.
Little’s legislative aide Dan MacEntee predicted that approval of the Senate bill in the Assembly — or a compromise measure — was gaining ground due to the rising awareness among legislators of the drugs’ effects.
“Legislators are concerned about the health and safety of people, particularly teens,” he said. “These are dangerous drugs, and legislators want to prevent something horrific — this is a common-sense, non-partisan issue.”
The senate measure criminalizing synthetic marijuana and bath salts imposes penalties similar to the state’s marijuana laws. While possession is a violation, distribution or sale is generally a misdemeanor, but sale to a minor or near a school would be a felony, prompting a prison sentence of up to 25 years.
The proposed law also allows people to voluntary turn over any of these substances, for the first 90 days the law is in effect, without any consequences.