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Label liability

AG’s new tack to get ahead of designer drug sellers

Synthetic designer drugs are pictured in this file photo. AP Images

New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman has launched a new strategy to curb abuse of “bath salts” and other designer drugs. The Attorney General’s Office has launched lawsuits against 12 retailers across New York who sell the substances, including the Rochester-based Look Ah Hookah chain.

The grounds? Violating New York labeling laws.

“We are not aware of other states using this approach, but since we filed our lawsuits in July, other state attorneys general as well as multiple district attorneys in New York state have reached out to us for guidance,” Schneiderman said in an email interview.

It appears that Schneiderman’s action against Look Ah Hookah has already been settled. In addition to the removal of a number of product lines, the owner of Look Ah Hookah, Theresa J. Dyer, has agreed to pay $32,000 in fines and costs. A woman answering the phone at Look Ah Hookah’s corporate office declined to comment. The chain has locations in Greece, Henrietta and Webster.

Over the past two years, the U.S. has seen a surge in the use of legal synthetic drugs that mimic the effects of marijuana, cocaine, amphetamines and other illegal substances. The drug’s synthetic makeup has proven to be a serious problem for prosecutors and law enforcement — almost as soon as any one variety is banned, the drug’s makers tweak their formulas to technically stay within the law.

Making matters worse is their impact; the substances have been linked to bizarre and violent activity across the country. This has left lawmakers playing a losing game of catch-up, experts say.

“The moment you start to regulate one of them, they’ll come out with a variant that sometimes is even more potent,” said Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Emergencies related to these drugs have skyrocketed: The American Association of Poison Control Centers received more than 6,100 calls about synthetic drugs last year — up from just 304 the year before. In the first half of 2012, they have reported more than 1,700 calls.

The term “bath salts” comes from a common label on the drug’s packaging. Often sold in small, independent stores, the synthetic drug’s makers generally label them as common household items like bath salts, incense and plant food. U.S. law bans the sale or possession of all substances that mimic illegal drugs, but only if officials show they are intended for human use. For this reason, those who manufacture bath salts and similar drugs print “not for human consumption” on virtually every packet.

Barbara Carreno, a spokeswoman for the Drug Enforcement Agency, described the tactic as nothing more than a legal fig leaf.

“Everyone knows these are drugs to get high, including the sellers,” she said.

The situation has left prosecutors and lawmakers in search of creative solutions. That, Schneiderman said, is where his recent effort comes in.

Under New York state’s labeling laws, consumer products must identify the intended uses; location of the manufacturer, packer, or distributor; the common product name; the net quantity of contents; and the net quantity of servings. They must also include appropriate directions and warnings for use.

“Our approach is an innovative addition to the tools available to law enforcement efforts to shut down the illegal sale of designer drugs like bath salts and synthetic marijuana,” Schneiderman said.

As part of an undercover investigation, agents from the attorney general’s office went into Look Ah Hookah stores as well as others and purchased items such as Kratom, Fly Agaric Mushrooms, VOODOO Aromatic Potpourri, and Experience Salvia 150FX.

In addition to the settlement with Look Ah Hookah, the attorney general’s office has also sued and obtained temporary restraining orders against Pavilion International in Buffalo and Commack, Twisted Headz in Syracuse, Trip on the Wild Side II in Watertown, Rolling Fire Glassworks in Endicott, Goodfellas Alternative Smoke Shop in Utica, 20 Below/This and That in Plattsburgh, Shining Star Enterprises in Albany, Giggles in Poughkeepsie, Village Sensations in Nanuet, East Coast Psychedelics in Oceanside and Commack, and Daze Smoke Shop in Baldwin.

— With contributions from The Associated Press