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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.

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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