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State health commissioner bans sale of synthetic marijuana

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New York State has banned the sale of synthetic marijuana products. Marketed as "herbal incense" and sold under names like Spice and K2, the fake pot has been popular with people across the North Country, including Fort Drum soldiers. The post near Watertown recently announced it would ban soldiers from spending money at any businesses that sell synthetic pot. But as Joanna Richards reports, it now seems that won't be necessary.

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Joanna Richards
Watertown Correspondent

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State health commissioner Nirav Shah issued the ban Wednesday. He called for local health officials to make the order known in local communities and check to make sure businesses stop selling the drugs.

Maja Lundborg-Gray is an emergency room doctor at Samaritan Medical Center in Watertown. She says she's seen more and more patients for using synthetic pot since 2009 and the consequences can be serious.

"We're seeing these patients presenting with increased heart rate, increased blood pressure, they're agitated, they're sweaty. They have a number of neurologic symptoms that we're seeing, whether they're confused, some present catatonic and not talking to us, can't follow simple orders."

The products' legality, up until now, has made them popular with people who might otherwise use marijuana but need to be able to pass drug tests.

They’ve been easy to get, and because they’re legal many people believe they’re safe. But Gray says that's a false sense of security.

She says as the companies that make synthetic marijuana have changed their chemical formulas to keep ahead of bans by the Drug Enforcement Administration, the drugs have evolved to last longer and become more severe in their effects on users.

"Often that synthetic marijuana is binding stronger to the receptors in the brain than the natural marijuana, and so natural marijuana has an anti-psychotic medication to it. These synthetic marijuanas don't have that, and we're seeing the polar opposite of a natural marijuana high, a much more unstable picture."

Gray says her emergency room sometimes sends patients to the psychiatric ward who they suspect of using synthetic pot but won't admit it to doctors. When patients do admit to using the drugs, treatment often includes sedatives that help calm patients as they wait out the drug's effects. That usually takes six to eight hours but can sometimes be longer.

Fort Drum spokeswoman Julie Cupernall spoke with North Country Public Radio recently about what the base was doing to keep soldiers away from synthetic marijuana.

One business that sells the drugs was put off-limits to soldiers last year when it refused to stop. And Fort Drum was in the process of requesting four other businesses in 10 locations to stop selling the drugs or face being added to that off-limits list.

Cupernall said many soldiers, in their late teens and early twenties, don't always make the best decisions for their health and well-being and drugs, legal or otherwise, make them less effective soldiers.

"I remember being that age and perhaps not always making the best long-term decisions for some short-term fun. It's hard to hold that against somebody in that age frame, you know, you get it, I understand it, but at the same time too, they need to be held to a higher standard. They are soldiers in the United States Army, so these are actions that we're taking to ensure that we're doing everything we can do to help them make the very best decisions."

Now Fort Drum’s efforts will get a major boost from the state ban, as no businesses will be allowed to carry synthetic marijuana. Those who violate the ban will face civil penalties.

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