September 28, 2021

DA, sheriff’s office call for ban of chemically-altered drugs

It looks like an illegal drug; it acts like an illegal drug; it’s sold like an illegal drug. But it’s not illegal, so Cortland County’s top law enforcers want to change that.

The Cortland County district attorney and sheriff’s offices say they are trying to crack down on man-made drugs, but chemical compounds don’t quite fit into the categories of prohibited substances.

As methamphetamine cases declined countywide, the gap quickly filled with “bath salts” and synthetic opioids, District Attorney Patrick Perfetti told the Cortland County Legislature’s Judiciary and Public Safety Committee on Thursday.

The district attorney’s and sheriff’s offices propose a local law that would prohibit the sale, possession or use of any synthetic intoxicant or dangerous substance that mimics the effects of controlled substances or marijuana, if it does not have a legitimate therapeutic use or purpose, such as anesthesia for medical or dental purposes.

The crime would be a Class B misdemeanor, punishable by a $500 fine and up to three months in jail.

“The state laws largely have not been altered to keep up with what’s going on and what we’re seeing in the street,” Perfetti said. “It goes back and forth — the drugs that have been declared illegal, the way around that is for the manufacturers to develop something new, ahead of us, that we haven’t declared illegal because they’re doing it by a chemical compound.”

For the past 50 years, drug enforcement has categorized, or scheduled, drugs as either stimulants, narcotics or hallucinogens, and made them illegal, Perfetti said.

“What the drug manufacturers started to do was to alter that chemical compound in a way that the new compound would not be on the schedule, but still have the intoxicating effects,” Perfetti said. “The fact that someone is in possession of an item that has an intoxicating effect is dangerous, and to get that narcotic off the street is our goal to solve issues here.”

The local law would give police another tool in their efforts against drug use and crime, said Cortland police Lt. Michael Strangeway.

“It’s important that officers on the street are given every legal means at their disposal to cope with what is becoming a larger and larger drug epidemic in this community and others,” Strangeway said.

“It will also provide an avenue for officers to get some of these addicts into a court, which may be the only means by which some of these addicts can get the help they need.”

Bath salts and similar compounds are currently the most prevalent and abused substances in the city, Strangeway said, and the drugs’ effects can vary dramatically, but typically include a heightened heart rate, involuntary body movement, paranoia and delusions.

Current testing equipment does not pick up on some of these man-made drugs, because the chemical compounds aren’t classified in the systems.

“It really closes the gap on drugs that we can’t test for, but we know people are doing,” said Undersheriff Budd Rigg.

Packaging of synthetic intoxicants, like bath salts, can be attractive to children, and often looks like candy, he said.

Legislator Richard Stock (D-Cortland) said he didn’t know how drugs got into the hands of Cortland County residents, including the chemically altered substances.

Perfetti said some drugs are sold in smoke shops or convenience stores, in addition to people selling them on the streets.

Legislator Cathy Bischoff (D-Cortland) said she was concerned about the effect the local law.

“I think at this point we’ve agreed that there are many individuals who’ve been incarcerated for years and years and years because they possessed small amounts of drugs,” Bischoff said.

“I would like for us to consider this — protecting the public in terms of helping them have a better understanding of how dangerous this stuff is,” Bischoff said.

“Then, on the other hand, the solution written to the law is to arrest these individuals — so I would ask to take more time to consider what this law is trying to do.”

Cortland County Probation Director Nicole Albro said every person who is arrested goes through numerous steps before conviction or probation.

“There’s a lot of stops on the way that gives them a chance to turn back,” Albro said.

Help is available for addicted people. Her concern is for people who do not take the offered help, Albro said, and she’s seen police officers stop people in her own driveway in the town of Truxton.

“If they truly don’t want help, then they’re walking out, and if they don’t have any money, they might be going from house to house every night,” Albro said.

Committee members agreed it would help to hear from narcotics enforcement officers who can teach them about bath salts and other chemical compounds that would fall under the local law.

Committee Chairwoman Sandra Price (D-Harford, Virgil) suggested the Legislature invite officers from Cortland and Homer, as well as people who are going through treatment for substance use. The committee voted, 6-1, in favor of the local law prohibiting synthetic intoxicant drugs, Bischoff voting in opposition. The Legislature will have a public hearing on the proposal at the Sept. 23 Legislature session.