NEWBURYPORT — Synthetic cannabis, sold under the brand names Spice or K2, can be purchased at head shops, gas stations and other Massachusetts stores anytime by anyone. It is marketed as herbal incense that can fill the room with a pleasing aroma aimed at soothing the nerves. But when smoked, it produces a hallucination high that mimics marijuana intoxication and has become increasingly popular with Newburyport teens.
Concern over the detrimental effects of these products has sparked not only the city’s Beacon Coalition, Department of Youth Services and Police Department to address the issue, but in recent weeks it has also inspired local parents to do what they can to make sure their peers are aware of the problem.
In March 2011, the federal government banned the sale of five types of synthetic cannabis, including K2, but since local police departments cannot enforce federal laws, it is up to communities to enact their own laws or ordinances banning sales. So far, most states including Illinois, New York and Michigan have banned synthetic marijuana sales, but Massachusetts has not yet joined them.
Still, two cities in the state, Fall River and Lynn, have implemented such an ordinance serving as a blueprint of sorts to other communities looking to do the same. Other communities have asked for a pledge from merchants not to sell K2. In recent weeks, Newburyport’s Department of Youth Services Director Andrea Egmont has been in contact with Fall River officials seeking their advice.
Per Fall River’s ordinance, no person shall sell, offer to sell, gift or publicly display for sale any cannabimimetic product, illegal chemical agent or illegal chemical product that produces a euphoric or intoxicated state. Residents are also banned from possessing or inhaling such products including tobacco, herbs, incense, spice, bath salts, plant food or any blend of those products. The fine for violating the ordinance is $300 for each offense with a separate offense for each sale, offer to sell, gift or public display for sale.
Since Fall River officials implemented the ordinance, enforced by its police department followed by its board of health, the city has revoked two food licenses for a year, according to Marilyn Edge of Western Bristol County & Foxborough, Tobacco & Alcohol Prevention of Fall River.
Nicole Lamb, the mother of a daughter in the Newburyport school system, said she’d like to see her city officials pass a similar ban. She and about 15 other middle and high school parents have been meeting once a month to discuss teen-related issues, how they are raising their teens and to support each other through the sometimes overwhelming process. At a recent meeting, the subject of K2 came up — and from that the seed of an idea.
“Our biggest thing, honestly, is to get people educated about it,” Lamb said. “If we can ban it in our community, then obviously we’d be happy about that.”
Egmont, who said synthetic marijuana use is an issue that most parents don’t know about, said her department would support Lamb’s group and offer them resources, but it is up to them to follow through.
“I think it’s great when parents take action,” Egmont said.
Recently, Lamb and others in her group have approached the Board of Health to gauge whether it might be interested in following Fall River and Lynn’s lead. So far, talks have been preliminary, but the parents are prepared to go before the Board of Health during an upcoming meeting to state their case.
“At this point we are hoping to talk with them to make them aware of it,” Lamb said. “We’re not naive, we always know a new drug is going to come out.”
Lamb said that was frightens her and other parents about K2 is that its side effects and long-term effects are still unknown. Another troubling aspect on K2 and its brethren is that teens may feel it’s safe to use in ways not intended because of its availability in stores.
“The stores, they might not even know what it’s doing,” Lamb said.
City Marshall Thomas Howard said his officers have asked vendors not to sell K2 and at first they complied. But recent evidence has shown that while the stores, including two gas stations on Storey Avenue, have pulled K2 from their shelves, it is still available to those who ask for it.
“They are still selling it,” Howard said.
Banning the sales of K2 locally would seem to fit the mission of the Beacon Coalition to a tee. Founded in 2006, and funded in part by grants, the Beacon Coalition is a multi-faceted group that looks to find solutions to reduce under-age use and abuse of alcohol, tobacco and other drugs. Its members include the Police Department and Newburyport Youth Services.
Since its inception, the coalition has been effective in combating not only under-aged drug and alcohol use, but public drunkenness, overserving at bars and the purchase alcohol by adults for minors.
Howard, who is heavily involved with the Beacon Coalition, said K2 use has led to many poor decisions and that the Beacon Coalition is supporting the parent group’s efforts to educate the public and perhaps inspire an outright ban of its sale.
A startling example of how K2 can lead to dangerous activity took place on High Street earlier this year. In late January, a local man was stopped by police after he allegedly stole a car and drove on the wrong side of the main thoroughfare while under the influence of drugs, forcing several motorists off the road. After his arrest, the suspect told police he was headed to an AA meeting at the time of his arrest, but later admitted he had taken K2, according to police.