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Jeff Ward: A Cautionary Tale About the Bans on Pot-Pourri

Karen Dobner's heroic campaign to inform people about the dangers of synthetic marijuana is spot on, but her efforts to ban the products might end up making matters worse.

Who wouldn’t be impressed with Karen Dobner’s efforts to rid the Fox Valley of synthetic marijuana, or “potpourri” as it’s colloquially known? And she’s getting results! Aurora, Sugar Grove and North Aurora all have banned the substance, with St. Charles and Chicago likely to follow soon.

Had one of those products likely contributed my son’s death, I might be working my butt off too ban it, too.

I’m sure most of you have already heard of the tragic story that started with purchasing some “iAroma,” a legal substance at the time, from an Aurora tobacco shop.

According to Karen Dobner, Max called his older brother later that afternoon and said, “I smoked that legal stuff and my heart is pounding and I’m having a panic attack.” Despite his brother's attempts to calm him down, Max was last seen driving at high rate of speed on Mooseheart Road when he ending his too-short life.

“I don’t want any family to go through what my family went through,” Karen Dobner told reporters. “I don’t want any kids to have to go through what my son was going through.”

No one could argue with that sentiment, and I can certainly understand someone channeling their grief and anger in this proactive manner. It’s a heck of a lot better than just sitting around and slowly dying yourself.

But as much as I understand her motivation, my nagging fear is, not only are her efforts likely to fail, but they might actually make the situation even worse.

In her response to my previous Beacon-News column on this subject, Dobner wrote that, “Max would have NEVER smoked that stuff if it was illegal. And, I can’t tell you how many people, not just the young, have told me that they thought that because it was legal, it was safe.”

But that's circular logic. Because as fast as they can make these designer drugs illegal, a new one takes its place. And the fact that something’s legal doesn't make it safe, either—see cigarettes.

The supreme irony in all this is, iAroma was the “answer” to the state’s decision to ban “K2,” another marijuana substitute. All these companies have to do is tweak a drug’s chemical composition, and they’re right back in business. And it seems that, with each iteration, these synthetic products get more and more dangerous.

An MD who’s seen an increase in synthetic-pot-related emergency room visits said, “People who smoke marijuana don’t tend to wind up in the ER. They just want to watch a video, eat some ice cream and go to sleep.”

This phenomenon reminds me of the stories of deadly wood alcohol making it into much of Prohibition-era bootleg whiskey, blinding and killing thousands. The “cure” in these cases can be far worse than the “disease.” We do seem doomed to repeat history don’t we?

Think of the illegal drugs that didn’t even exist when we were teenagers—crack, ecstasy and crystal meth, to name a few. Considering the higher concentrations of THC, current marijuana strains certainly aren’t your father’s pot anymore. Still, it’s nowhere near as dangerous as the synthetic stuff.

And legal drugs are even worse. Prescription painkillers account for 15,000 deaths in the U.S. every year. That’s more than all the heroin and cocaine overdoses combined, and those legal pharmaceuticals can be found right on the shelf in your medicine cabinet.

I really don’t want to cause Mrs. Dobner any more pain—she’s been through enough—but if we really want to prevent that next teenage synthetic drug death, it all comes down to personal responsibility.

We all make choices, and those choices have consequences, intended or otherwise. Physics may offer that consistent equal-and-opposite reaction, but sometimes life doesn’t. Max Dobner paid far too high a price for a mild error in judgment, but it was ultimately his choice to smoke that drug.

Prohibition doesn’t work. “Just say no” doesn’t work. Without becoming the embodiment of the Sword of Damocles, the best we can do is arm our children with the knowledge of potential consequences of pharmaceuticals—legal and illegal—and then be consistent ourselves. If we take prescription drugs at every turn, what message does that send our children?

Again, I admire Mrs. Dobner's efforts to warn us of the dangers involved in using any synthetic drug, but I wish she stopped there. Because, while her ongoing mission might work in the short run, considering what might replace iAroma, her efforts to ban these substances might do more long run harm than good.

Jeff Ward November 16, 2011 at 07:08 PM
Sandy, Though I sometimes think MADD goes too far, Ms. Lightner did not try to ban alcohol, she raised our consciousness as to the dangers of drinking and driving. Since I've been writing columns I've been calling for no-nonsense European DUI laws. But I also think we should reduce the drinking age to 18 and take other steps to make alcohol less of a teenage forbidden fruit. Jeff
Bob McQuillan November 16, 2011 at 07:15 PM
You never cease to amaze me! You want everyone to get involved and then when they do, you find some reason to blast them. We all know this was a personal choice, you don't have to put it in writing. The issue isn't the character of this young man, it is about something legal that can kill. Let me ask you, other than writing an opinion column, what have you decided to get involved in? Coaching soccer and shopping at your favorite record store in Geneva are not viable answers.
Karen November 16, 2011 at 07:29 PM
You don't really state why banning these products would make the situation worse, other than to give the example of prohibition. These products are legal in most states and that didn't stop them from producing them in extreme potencies, enough to cause many deaths and injuries. So there goes that argument! You're right that everything legal isn't safe. However, we send a message to kids when a product is not banned and it's as dangerous as fake pot. You can't compare cigarettes with synthetic drugs. Fake pot causes vomiting, hallucinations, temporary paralysis, increased heart rate and palpitations, seizures, panic attacks, exaggerated thoughts of suicide, among others. These greedy 'bad guys' are targeting our kids with their marketing via social media networks and Youtube. You can't be serious that we should allow this to go on. On the other hand, it's clear that you didn't do your homework before writing this article. Get your facts straight and let's try again.
Jeff Ward November 16, 2011 at 07:40 PM
Karen, I didn't want to make the column a call to legalize pot, but that's exactly what they should do. Then there would be no need for the synthetic stuff. And as the MD in the column said, the real stuff is nowhere near as dangerous as iAroma. Again, as they did with K2, they will ban this form of fake pot and the next designer drug will surely take its place. Since these companies don't want to get sued, they start with the safest formulas and then shift to the more dangerous as the government makes them illegal. Karen, you can't stop this process because you can't make something illegal in anticipation. The law has to name a specific chemical or chemical combination. Ecstasy was actually a legal drug when it first arrived. In fact, they thought it would aid in the therapeutic process. By all means raise consciousness as to the dangers of synthetic drugs, but banning them only leads to the next synthetic drug and the next and the next and the next. It's not even as good as putting your finger in the dike. Prohibition has never worked and it never will. Jeff
Bob McQuillan November 16, 2011 at 07:42 PM
Jeff I'm waiting for an answer to my question. What have you decided to get involved in?
Karen November 16, 2011 at 08:02 PM
I guess I will agree with Bob in that you never cease to amaze me. You actually think that we should allow these hallucinogens and stimulants to remain on our shelves. Again, they are causing hallucinations, paranoid delusions, vomiting, ect. I get calls and emails everyday from people that characterize the effects as "the worst experience" of my life. You are basically saying that we should leave these products on our shelves because they are a ramification of the marijuana laws. Your argument is that these products will get more dangerous. They can't get much more dangerous, Jeff. Already, people that are coming out of rehab are saying that fake pot is the last drug they will do. It's that bad. The people that are using are those that don't know. You really need to educate yourself before you start writing columns. You're making leaps and jumps that come from a position of ignorance. You clearly didn't do your legal research. You say that "the law has to name a specific chemical or chemical combination". WRONG! Again, the new Illinois law (Jan. 1, 2012) bans all analogues of certain classes of chemicals. Don't write about something that you know nothing about!
Mary Stith November 16, 2011 at 08:27 PM
Couldn't agree with you more Sandy. I've had the opportunity to meet Karen a few times and think the work she is doing is excellent.
Bill Brunson November 16, 2011 at 08:34 PM
Karen, he's really, REALLY good at that. And, par for the course, he really goes on the defensive when taken to task.
Bob McQuillan November 16, 2011 at 09:06 PM
Jeff Are you out there ..... not to bring the sledgehammer down but I'm still waiting for an answer to my question
Terry Flanagan November 16, 2011 at 11:53 PM
Our kids are probably the most informed and connected generation ever. They have access to the Internet and numerous social networks. Presumably, they can find out everything they need to know about whatever topics they want. Karen has unfortunately learned a lot about iAroma in the wake of the worst possible tragedy any parent can face. I assume that all of this information is out there and has been out there for some time. How do we get our kids to tap into that information before they make the wrong decision? I know that we kids are reluctant to go to their parents to discuss things sometimes. But aren't there any resources among the social networks and other web sites that offer expert advice for kids who are thinking about doing something that could harm them? If not, maybe we need some sort of expert advice network that will help kids with issues they don't want to discuss with their parent or teachers or ministers. Perhaps it needs to be anonymous. Whatever it takes, we need to reach our kids somehow before they make the wrong choices because even one tragedy is one too many.
Eve November 17, 2011 at 12:51 AM
Jeff-- I guess it's very easy for you to sit at your computer and type out your opinions on this subject,..after all, this was not YOUR son who lost his life. Your position on this matter is, quite frankly, wimpy. To suggest that we don't do anything but a better job of informing our kids on right from wrong--seriously? Is that the best idea you have for solving this problem? I think I will keep my money on Karen Dobner and her multi-faceted approach of hitting this evil industry from all sides. She's informing and educating families while also fighting an industry that should have no place in our society. Some of your facts are incorrect, by the way,..one brand is no worse than the other--they are ALL poison and potentially deadly. Because this stuff is not regulated--one brand name can even have several different mixes of ingredients and potencies from package to package! To have a drug similar to PCP sold in corner stores within our neighborhoods-- as a supposed legitimized product--that puts this drug in a whole different league than the legalized pot you wish for. You need to do a little more research before sitting back on the sidelines and proclaiming your hypothesis for how this is all going to play out. I encourage you to get out there in the trenches with Karen and get the insight she's getting from all sides of the problem,..the users, the parents, the physicians, the DEA, and others.
Jeff Ward November 17, 2011 at 01:12 AM
Eve, All we can do is better inform our kids because nothing else works. We've already banned one marijuana substitute (K2) so they came up with another one in short order. Please tell me how banning this one will that stop teenagers who want to get high? I spoke with a school member today who told me about catching three kinds with a paint can and no paint brushes. He knew exactly what they were doing. And huffing paint is far more dangerous than synthetic pot. So what do we do now? Ban house paint? My facts are dead on. Prohibition has never worked, it is not working and it will never work. The War on Drugs costs us 15 billion dollars a year and the net result is we've put 2.3 million Americans in jail. That more than four times the prison population of China. Pot doesn't kill people, but its substitute does. The answer seems obvious to me. Jeff
Eve November 17, 2011 at 01:24 AM
Jeff- It's substitute does kill,..and you are suggesting we do nothing but educate our children on making good choices? I'm sorry,..my son's life and the lives of those I love are too important for me to wait out the legalization of pot. To suggest that because pot isn't legalized--that we shouldn't ban a drug we know nothing about on a clinical level other than it causes seizures, heart attacks and ultimately death is ridiculous. Oh, and by the way,..Bob is waiting for an answer up there.
Jeff Ward November 17, 2011 at 01:35 AM
Eve, Bob, and anyone else that attempts to make me the story is going to have a very long wait. What I'm saying is that banning synthetic pot will make no difference. They'll either immediately come up with a new legal designer drug or teenagers will turn to something even more dangerous like huffing household products And the next synthetic drug will probably be even more dangerous too. What possible point could there be to banning a product when it's bound to make the situation worse? I don't like these insidious designer drugs either, but banning one or even a class of them will not even begin to solve the problem. Please! Go ahead and warn us of the dangers of legal and illegal drugs. But if we truly want to solve this problem, we have to address why teenagers want to get high and warn them of what the consequences might be. Jeff
Eve November 17, 2011 at 02:03 AM
Jeff-- For the life of me,..I cannot imagine anyone--even my most liberal friends whose mantra has been/is to legalize pot,...who would NOT want to immediately get this stuff out of their neighborhood stores. This is a new breed of drug originating as a legal substance, sold in stores, marketed as safe and legal,.. and thus deceptively legitimized. Pot doesn't even get that kind of good press/marketing! I would argue that you are bringing in a whole other group of kids who might not otherwise try something like this if they knew it was illegal. Kids are curious,..no doubt,..and often try things not necessarily for any "problem" or "reason to get high" other than just out of old fashioned curiosity. This puts synthetic marijuana on a whole other playing field than pot. It's a dangerous poison that kills--marijuana doesn't kill you. Because of the way it's marketed,..to both first time users and habitual marijuana users, alike--many unsuspecting kids are falling prey. To sit back and wait for pot to be legalized is not an acceptable answer. I'm not suggesting kids won't want to get high--there will always be that element. I would suggest that we shouldn't allow a manipulative industry to continue to deceptively profit from putting our kids lives in jeapordy and the only way to accomplish that is to get rid of all synthetic products.
Jeff Ward November 17, 2011 at 02:12 AM
Eve, I don't like these designer drug companies either, but the law doesn't allow for an across the board ban because of the unintended consequences of doing so. To some degree, every legal pharmaceutical is synthetic. Ban all synthetic drugs and there goes your heart medication. Because they can come up with drugs faster that we can ban them, the only answer is to go after the demand. And that's our job as parents. Jeff
Bob McQuillan November 17, 2011 at 02:49 AM
Jeff I certainly don't want to make you the story. I only asked you a simple question, how are you getting involved? Your latest reply states, "But if we truly want to solve this problem, we have to address why teenagers want to get high and warn them of what the consequences might be." So again I ask, How are you getting involved? It's not a difficult question.
Sandy November 17, 2011 at 04:26 AM
Jeff, You do know that a child of any age can walk into those stores and buy this fake pot. There are no rules. My 17 year old can buy it or my 10 year old can buy it. And I just don't understand why you are not looking at this law. They can't just make a small change and put it back on the shelf anymore. PLEASE do your homework. Some people will read what you say and think you are informed. Which you have proven to be false.
Jeff Ward November 17, 2011 at 01:01 PM
Sandy, I hate to say it, but it's my readers who are uninformed here. And some of them seem to be making it up as they go along. First, and again, the latest form of synthetic pot is an answer to the state's ban of K2. They tweaked the formula and made it legal seconds after the original state statute. Second, the current bans are going city by city with different legal standards. There is no overall state ban of iAroma. Some forbid that specific formula while others are attempting to ban all "cannabinoid" substances. Third, even if the state does ban the latest version of synthetic pot, they'll come up with something completely new to replace it. These companies know exactly what's going on and they have the next legal substance all ready to go. And fourth, a 10 year old can go into a hardware store and buy a small can of paint. So do we now ban Sherwin Williams? I understand this is a brutal reality, but simply repeating that I haven't done my homework so people can feel better about this doesn't make it true. Has any ban on any drug worked up to this point? Teenagers will tell you it's easier to get pot than it is to buy beer! Jeff
Karen November 17, 2011 at 03:48 PM
Jeff, house paint has another use. There is no other use for synthetic marijuana. Additionally, there were other products besides K2. K2 is jut a brand name. Can we get you to understand this. The name was used like Kleenex to describe a product. Get educated!!!! And, with the new laws, they can no longer "tweek" the chemical and come out with a new product. They are outlawing any ANALOGUE of these classes of chemicals. Are you finally getting this???? The new law in Illinois will be in effect on January 1, 2012. But, local ordinances allow them to make quick changes, in the event that the 'bad guys' get around the new, much improved law. 10 year olds can NOT go buy spray paint . No one is saying that we should ban paint, paint thinnner, computer cleaner, ect!!!!!! No one has said that, so lose that argument!!!! That's not what we are talking about. However, there is NO OTHER use for synthetic drugs. They are sold as potpourri, incense, ect, but are sold by the gram. (28 grams to an ounce, 16 ounces to a pound) It would cost $2,000 to fill a bowl. Another words, THERE IS NO OTHER USE FOR FAKE POT!!!! We are not saying that we should ban potpourri. There has never been a woman that bought potpourri by the gram at the gas station or tobacco shop. I can't believe that you actually have a career as a journalist when you are so incredibly uninformed. You are clearly using your platform to try to legalize marijuana. This is a completely different issue.
Jeff Ward November 17, 2011 at 04:34 PM
Karen, They cannot ban a brand name by statute, they have to prohibit a chemical formula. I have worked for chemical and food companies before and I understand the patent process and what makes a product legal or illegal. I also understand and already mentioned that the state will most likely ban ban canabinoids and any analogues of THC. But do you think for one second these companies can't get around that? Watch! They'll use a completely different chemical composition that does something similar to the brain. And it will likely be even more dangerous. Has putting cold medications in a locked case stopped them from making crystal meth? Other than filing some sort of lawsuit to put specific companies out of business, the state simply cannot keep up with them. There will always be a massive lag time and as long as there's a demand for these products they will come up with something new. And every time you ban one of these products it will be replaced by a more dangerous product. I assume you've heard of "bath salts," a synthetic form of MDMA and cocaine that many states have banned. Those substances are far more dangerous that iAroma and they're currently tweaking them. It's feel good legislation that makes folks believe we're actually doing something about the problem when we're actually making it worse. Karen, you can scream and name call to your heart's content, but that doesn't change the truth. Jeff Jeff
Jeff Ward November 17, 2011 at 04:36 PM
Karen, From a recent Indiana news story: "Dr. Dave Nichols, a professor of Pharmacology at Purdue University. Underground chemists are copying the chemical compounds he’s published for drugs that treat Parkinson’s and depression, and they’re using them to create designer street drugs. With their understanding of chemistry, they can manipulate the specific chemical formulations, too, in response to legal efforts to stop them. As they shift the chemical composition, the state legislature is going to be running to keep up with it,” Beals said. For example, he said, a compound called K4 is already being created in Europe, similar to K2 incense, but with a different chemical makeup that would skirt the legislation that goes into affect July 1. As far as enforcement of the new law, Attorney General Greg Zoeller called the law “a moving target.”
Karen November 17, 2011 at 05:12 PM
Wow Jeff, that's not what I said. Not even close. I know that they can't ban a brand name. Duh! It's not feel good legislation. Yes, it's not going to go away. We're not dumb. But, to have it readily available at every convenient store, gas station and tobacco shop in town, in the event that the kids may get a notion to try this stuff is just plain stupid. Any kids in the world is going to have a day where he wants to experiment. We are working on educating kids and their parents, which we feel is our most important mission. But, we're not going to leave the bleach on the floor for the baby to drink. I'm done trying to talk sense to someone who's only mission is to legalize marijuana. This is a totally separate issue! Additionally, the chemicals that have replaced the banned ones are not more dangerous. Where are you getting your information. I talk to the DEA, science community and legislators everyday and have never heard that the chemical replacements are more dangerous than the originals. Again, you need to do your research before publishing the kind of misinformation that you are spewing.
Karen November 17, 2011 at 05:14 PM
I'm done trying to educate you on something that you are clueless about. When you have done your research and can debate in an educated manner, than I will talk to you further. But, you are just spreading misinformation and wasting everyone's time and energy. Done!
Jeff Ward November 17, 2011 at 05:32 PM
Karen, What will you do when K4 is in every convenience store, gas station and tobacco shop in town? Jeff
Colin C. November 17, 2011 at 05:49 PM
There is an interesting book that addresses this in great detail: "Licit and Illicit Drugs" by Brecher and published by Consumer's Union. It is a thoroughly researched and documented text that addresses history, pharmacology, psychology and medicine, the legal system, politics, and virtually everything having to do with this subject. Brecher's conclusion is that the "war on drugs" in its current form has not and cannot succeed in significantly reducing, much less eliminating the harmful misuse of psychoactive drugs. This book was published in 1972. In the ensuing forty years I have seen nothing that would connivence me that Brecher was wrong. The problem is profound; devastating, heartbreaking, and - I cannot think of a strong enough adjective to express my feelings. Karen has been fighting this battle for less than a year that I know of. God bless her! I've been at it for forty years and Brecher's was one of the first that I read on the subject. Starting in the 90s I used it as a basic text for the course "Drug Abuse in American Society" which I taught as a part of a college degree program in Addiction Counseling. I recommend it to anyone who is truly interested. It is dated, but its central points are still quite relevant. So, what do we do? There are some interesting ideas out there but not enough room to review them here. Briefly, we might look to more of a community health and less a legal approach.
Karen November 17, 2011 at 06:59 PM
Colin, I agree that our main focus needs to be education and prevention. We are working to an educational program for different age levels. But, offering it in nearly every retail location is just plain dumb. It has to be a coordinated effort, to include legislation, education and prevention.
Colin C. November 17, 2011 at 07:36 PM
Karen, I've been in the forefront of education/prevention for years. It has a somewhat limited positive effect. Here's an outline of an idea for discussion. First, drop the idea that we will eliminate drug abuse. Think in terms of "Harm Reduction"; an achievable goal. Make addictive, psychoactive drugs available to "consenting adults" through licensed medical facilities that can provide supervision, education and treatment. The cost of these drugs would be low enough so as to destroy the profit of the worldwide illegal drug trade. Sale, possession, etc. outside this controlled environment is still illegal, with consequences strong enough to make it not worth the effort to break the law. There will still be strong sanctions for illegal or destructive acts associated with drug use, i.e. DUI, other crimes. People convicted for violating either of the above would be sentenced to minimun security addiction treatment centers instead of prison on the first offense. If there is recidivism and it is determined that a person is not willing or able to comply with the law then send them to prison. Currently the DEA and the legal system cost us 10s of billions of dollars for programs that have not reduced overall drug use or the damage that the illegal drug market causes. By making these drugs available on a controlled basis and reducing the legal costs we free up tons of money for a much more comprehensive education/prevention program.
Colin C. November 17, 2011 at 07:47 PM
(Plan: Cont.) The goal of the prevention program would be to create the social norm that using psychoactive drugs recreationally is not cool but rather just pretty stupid. The American advertising industry can sell almost anything and, given time and money, can sell this idea too. Look at the change in attitudes toward smoking over the last 50 years or so. Problem solved? No! Dramatically changed and changing? Yes! Several countries in Europe have experimented with various aspects of this idea with remarkable success. There is some "controlled availability" in Switzerland and Portugal legalized heroin, among other drugs. In both countries overall use and associated problems has diminished. It would take years to develop a program like this and more years to implement and fine tune it, but it could be more effective at reducing the harm than what we have now. Thoughts? Better ideas?
seth February 07, 2012 at 02:23 PM
I smoke this stuff daily, i have strait A's in school and am 17. I do know some people who have had bad reactions to it but i have never had a problem with it. i just get a pot high, and Jeff is right, k2 was one of the originals but alot of the different brands give u different effects, not all the chemicals in them are the same, even the chemicals listed on them are different from oneanother. But i will admit everytime they illegalize it it seems to get more potent. but thats because they have to overhaul all the chemicals and add more and more everytime they illegalize it. The problem with people today is that they have no restraint. Even i have smoked to much and gotten a little sick (Nothing like the stories ive read, no vomiting or paranoia) i just got a stomach ache. People can abuse alchohol just like this synthetic marijuana, Hell. we can abuse cheesburgers but we dont outlaw all the fastfood places, and obesity kills more people then this stuff. This is a personal choice to use this stuff, if people like it then they can use it. However i live in NY and u have to be 18 to buy it, because of that i have friends get it for me. Im not saying its a good thing, but i for one will continue to smoke it as long as i dont have a bad reaction

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