County residents speak out against proposed synthetic drug law

(Photo Source: Pexels).

Several community members expressed their opposition Thursday to the county’s local law that would prohibit the sale and possession of intoxicating chemical compounds meant to mimic the effects of controlled substances, citing harsh penalties and overcriminalization of people struggling with addiction.

The proposed law focuses on substances “mislabeled or unlabeled that have the intended purpose of being ingested, inhaled, or injected, to mimic the effects of controlled substances and/or marijuana and that have no other legitimate therapeutic use or purpose.” 

County legislators expect to vote on this local law at next month’s Legislature meeting.

Those found to be in violation of the proposed law could be charged with a Class “A” misdemeanor. This means the potential for a definite term of imprisonment that should not exceed one year, a term of probation not to exceed three years, and/or the potential fine would be of up to $1,000.

A prior draft of the local law outlined that violators would be subject to be charged with a Class “B” misdemeanor and subject to a definite term of imprisonment not to exceed three months and/or a fine not to exceed $500. Each day an individual is found to be in violation of the law constitutes a separate offense, the law states.

Danielle Wimbish, a county resident, submitted a comment to the legislature opposing the measure. It was read by County Legislature clerk Savannah Hempstead.

“This policy continues to use the war on drugs mentality versus harm reduction strategies and addressing addiction problems,” she said.

Harm reduction is defined by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services as an “approach that emphasizes engaging directly with people who use drugs to prevent overdose and infectious disease transmission, improve the physical, mental, and social wellbeing of those served, and offer low-threshold options for accessing substance use disorder treatment and other health care services.” This approach has been long-touted by drug policy reform advocates as a pathway to solutions and now the widely adopted paradigm for the federal and state governments.

“Not only is incarcerating people and (handing out fines) damaging to those individuals, it also causes damages to their loved ones as well,” Wimbish said. “In addition to the fact that they're already going through addiction.”

Mechthild Nagel, a professor of philosophy at SUNY Cortland, said she advocates for the county to take a holistic approach to the issue.

“A broader holistic approach needs to inform policies regarding bath salt,” she said. “Holistic does not mean retaliatory and retributive. You can't have both. You can't have a healing community, and mobile units that save lives, while also saying ‘let's throw away the folks and the key.’”

Nagel, who is an expert in alternatives to mass incarceration and has written extensively on the abolition of prisons, said incarceration and punishment have been largely ineffective in helping people struggling with addiction.

“Let's not go for those who are already thought of as being disposable in society, but try compassion instead,” she said.