New York is my adoptive home—and on weeks like this, I’m proud to live in this state. On Tuesday night, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo once again displayed great courage and leadership by tackling the sale and production of synthetic drugs. The new legislation expands the state’s list of banned substances, making it more difficult for manufacturers to create designer drugs. For the first time, these regulations will allow law enforcement to charge distributors and their employees with possession of illicit substances. In addition, those who violate the rules will now face stiffer penalties.
We at Phoenix House are completely behind the governor’s actions. As I’ve written in the past, synthetic drugs such as “bath salts,” K2, and other products are highly dangerous, especially to vulnerable teens. Over the past few years, we’ve seen an alarming rise in the use of these substances. In the first six months of 2012, the New York State Poison Control Center received 321 calls regarding synthetic marijuana—up from just 20 calls in all of 2010. This is a major issue—and Governor Cuomo gets it. He knows he can’t just rely on federal laws to combat the problem. We need statewide laws to bolster the Obama Administration’s efforts.
The governor should be commended for his foresight, but we must push him a step further. The new legislation, while positive, won’t be enough to root out synthetic drug production and use. It focuses on regulating the drug supply, but any effort to address this problem must also reflect a concern for demand. Approaching the issue solely from a supply perspective is like trying to fill a dam; you patch up one hole, only to find a leak somewhere else. Banning certain ingredients will certainly make drug production more difficult, but creative manufacturers will always find another substance to use. We must understand the nature of the beast. Above all, the illegal drug industry is a business. We are up against a committed group of marketers, scientists, and sellers who will continue to develop new drugs and market them to young people. These individuals are predators in the truest sense of the word.
For this reason, we must give more thought to the demand for drugs, particularly among teens. We can’t stop young people from feeling tempted by a cleverly marketed product, but we can give them the tools to deal with this temptation. That’s where prevention and education come in. We’re currently working with a school district on Long Island to help prevent student drug use, reinforce positive behavior, identify at-risk youth, and intervene early before misuse develops into full-blown addiction. This innovative program is just one example of an approach that focuses on the causes behind use, not just the designer drug du jour.
In addition to prevention and education, we must ensure that help is available to those who need it. Producers of “bath salts” and similar substances deserve jail time, but the victims of their business schemes do not. As with all forms of addiction, treatment, not incarceration, is the solution to synthetic drug abuse. Putting drug users behind bars without providing proper treatment will only perpetuate the cycle of substance abuse. It is critical that we press our government officials to invest in services that help people get their lives back on track—rather than simply funding law enforcement and criminal justice measures.
We must get to the root of the problem. It’s wise for leaders like Governor Cuomo to stay on top of current drug trends, but unfortunately, it’s not enough. If we concentrate exclusively on banning specific drugs and punishing offenders, adolescent usage will continue to rise. But if we develop practical ways of educating and treating teens, we’ll be prepared to combat the next generation of designer drugs—and the one after that. Governor Cuomo is on the right track. Let’s encourage him and like-minded politicians to take their efforts to the next level.
President & CEO, Phoenix House