Colesville’s Tony and Sandy Eichler said that before his death several months ago, their son Charlie, 22, was a vibrant and happy young man living in New York and acting.
But that was before Eichler, a drug addict who was trying to wean himself off of methadone, began using synthetic marijuana, called “Spice” or “K-2,” to get through the withdrawal symptoms of the methadone.
But the drugs, which he bought legally at a tobacco shop, wreaked havoc on their son, Eichler’s parents said.
“He went from a vibrant young person to a person struggling to stay alive,” said Charlie’s father, Tony, recalling how his son lost feeling in his fingers, how he couldn’t sleep, lost the ability to walk and had to use adult diapers.
“Every time I wake up, there’s something else wrong with me,” he remembers Charlie telling him.
Charlie eventually committed suicide, his parents said Monday, the day before new drug laws go into effect in Maryland, banning synthetic cannabanoids like the ones Eichler used. The law bans the sale of substances that invoke a cannabis-like response in the brain.
Montgomery County State’s Attorney John McCarthy said letters would be sent to different stores in Montgomery County informing retailers about the ban. Prosecutors can seek a sentence of up to four years for possession of the drug, and up to 20 years for those who seek to distribute it, he said, explaining that the drugs could have a much stronger high than natural marijuana.
“The effect of this drug on the receptors of the brain can be 800 times more powerful than a THC high in a marijuana cigarrette,” he said.
Synthetic cannabanoids are usually made from plant material that has been treated with chemicals similar to the drugs in marijuana, said Leah King, technical leader of the Forensic Chemistry Unit in Montgomery County Police’s Crime Laboratory.
The drugs are sometimes packaged to appeal to young users. Police have come across versions of the drug with names like “Mr. Nice Guy” or “Scooby Snacks.”
Part of the danger of synthetic drugs is that there is no quality control and no way to verify what’s actually in the drugs, she said.
“It’s dangerous — like smoking gasoline-treated vegetation,” she said. The drugs have been tough to prosecute in the past; laws outlawed specific drugs, and chemists could change the drug’s chemical make-up by just a molecule, creating a new, legal substance that elicited a similar high, she said.
“The effective gist is, these are products that were legal, and now are not,” said Montgomery County Councilman George L. Leventhal (D-At Large), explaining that the law closes previous loopholes and that the new law covers any drug that invokes a “cannabanoid-like” response in a user’s brain.
Authorities said the drugs have been sold in tobacco shops or in neighborhood convenience stores, or masked as incense.
Starting Tuesday drivers caught talking on a cellphone can be pulled over for not using a hands-free device and drivers and all passengers in a vehicle will be required to wear a seatbelt.
As of Tuesday, driving and talking on a cellphone without a hands-free device will be a “primary offense,” meaning police can pull drivers over for that infraction alone, said Montgomery County Police Capt. Thomas Didone.
There are a few exceptions to the new law, he said. Drivers can have phones in their hand when starting or ending calls, turning phones on or off, or if drivers have to call police or rescue services.
Otherwise, “if the vehicle is in motion and a phone in your hand, you will get a citation,” he said. Police will issue an $83 fine for the first offense, a $140 fine for the second offense, and a $160 fine for the third offense. Drivers will not receive points on their license unless they are also in a collision, he said.
Distracted driving — failing to pay full time and attention — was one of the main factors causing crashes in 2012, Didone said.
“We believe cellphone usage was a significant contributor to those factors,” he said.
The other law being changed is one that now mandates all people in a vehicle must wear a seatbelt — including passengers in the back seat who are over the age of 16.
“Now everyone in the car must wear seatbelts,” he said, adding that it is illegal for passengers to “double buckle,” or put one seatbelt around two people. Before the change in the law, people who were over the age of 16 sitting in the back seat were not required to wear their seatbelts, even though passengers younger than 16 or who were sitting in the front seat were required to wear theirs.
“You’re not safe in the back seat without a seatbelt,” he said.
The law is a personal one for Didone, whose 15-year-old son, Ryan, died in a car accident in Damascus in 2008.
Ryan wasn’t wearing a seatbelt, Didone said. “That’s why I advocated the law,” he said, adding that states with blanket seatbelt laws tend to have compliance rates that are 20% higher than states that don’t have such laws.
“This law now gives officers the tools they need to take some action to save lives,” he said.
The offense will be a “secondary enforcement” violation, meaning it cannot alone be the reason officers pull over a car.
It carries a fine of $83, he said.