I was recently interviewed by CADCA, membership organization for 5,000 community coalitions in the US, about coalition work to prevent synthetic drug use. The article appears in CADCA’s Coalitions in Action newsletter, November 13, 2014.
Coalitions in Action: Michigan Sounds the Siren on New Synthetic Drugs.
Forget about Spice and K2. There’s new synthetic cannabinoids in town that a coalition in southeastern Michigan wants you to know about: “Cloud 9” and “Hookah Relax”.
Margaret Farenger, a current member and volunteer at the Bay Haven Prevention Coalition and former director of the Alliance for Coalitions of Healthy Communities, explained that this drug is a “hard one for parents to detect,” since it is sold in gas stations and party supply stores and looks like eye drops. It is commonly marketed as either e-liquid or incense, but could be nothing more opposite.
“The DEA doesn’t even know what’s in it until they test it,” Farenger said, adding that a few youth have been hospitalized this year after using it. “We are trying to notify schools and families and address this through other kinds of drug education. But what can we do to bring in more people in the community to see what types of solutions we can implement?”
Farenger recalled when synthetic cannabinoids first appeared in Michigan back in 2008 with a few isolated occurrences. By 2012, K2 and Spice were an epidemic.
“They were marked ‘not for human consumption,’ and were being retailed as products that were labeled as potpourri or air freshener,” she said. “There were high profile serious illnesses and several crimes associated with a young person being under the influence, here in Oakland County. It prompted community organization.”
Farenger explained that the way the synthetics are produced and sold don’t respond as well to the type of law enforcement that is used for other drugs, such as cocaine or heroin. It almost creates a loophole so people are able to sell the dangerous substances legally.
In 2012, her coalition — which is an umbrella group of 14 other coalitions — went door to door to local retailers, asking that they stop selling the substances.
“The advantage of coalition work is existing relationships,” Farenger said. “We jumped into action when tragedies started happening.”
Many local businesses signed a pledge agreeing not to sell synthetics. However, there were retailers who pushed back, saying that the substances are legal and expressed the desire to keep selling.
“Eventually they all signed, except for a few outliers,” Farenger said, adding that about 90 percent of the retailers willingly complied. “The state of Michigan passed a ban at the state level, which put more pressure on them.”
As with many drugs, you can’t rely solely on law enforcement to fix the problem and that’s especially true with synthetic drugs. “It has to be community/retailer relationships to keep it out of circulation,” Farenger noted.
Farenger believes the same strategies will help pull this new generation of synthetics off shelves.
The key is working with retailers and fostering those relationships. “That’s an area where coalitions can excel. The more coalitions in the area, the more you can do,” she said. “That works as a complementary component to the parent/youth education. Instead of just leaving it at parent and youth, you go on a larger scale and let the community know what it needs to do.”
For more information about prevention campaigns, see my Detroit News column on synthetic drug use.