By Nicole A. Elliott Staff writer

At least five businesses throughout the county that were selling products containing synthetic marijuana have taken it off their shelves within the last week.

That’s according to Oneida County Health Department’s canvassing efforts to inform stores of the state Department of Health ban the sale of the substances, otherwise known as "designer drugs."

The order was issued last week by State Health Commissioner Dr. Nirav R. Shah, state health commissioner, calling on local health officials to enforce the ban on products being sold as a "legal alternative" to marijuana under brand names like "K2," "Mr. Nice Guy" and "Galaxy Gold."

Since Monday, about 3-4 staff from county health have been contacting area businesses by phone to make sure they were complying. Rome Police also conducted a canvass of its own.

Dr. Daniel W. Gilmore, county environmental health director, said the calls were followed up by two letters to the businesses: one by standard mail and the other by certified. All contained copies of the order, as well as a fact sheet so business owners have a list of products on the banned list and a contact number for the state Department of Environmental Conservation in case vendors want to have any products in question destroyed.

So far 142 facilities have been contacted throughout the county. In Rome, officers have visited 17 retail locations believed to have been selling the substances and advised owners of the ban, as well as gave them copies of the order, Detective Commander Timothy J. Bates said today.

"Most who are finding they were carrying them were trying to return the products to the supplier" since they learned of the ban, Gilmore said. "But they can still call the DEC to have it destroyed."

The contact number for the DEC is 1-518-402-8678.

Today, Gilmore said the county Health Department was putting together an "interim summary" of its findings to report back to the state Department of Health.

"We made a lot of progress," Gilmore said of the county’s canvassing efforts today. "Five of the places we contacted have indicated that at one time they sold the product, but they either sent it back to the supplier" or got rid of it.

"All five are no longer selling it," the environmental health director added. "Once it became illegal they got it out of the business. Some of the places we’ve talked to mentioned places they know of where they’re selling the drugs, but we haven’t been able to confirm that or find contact information for some of those businesses. The state Health Department will assist us with that."

Gilmore said the county Health Department has been only acting as an "agent" to enforce the ban, helping to make the initial notification for the state Health Department. He expects the canvassing to wrap up "sometime early next week," estimating that efforts should be completed by Tuesday or Wednesday. Then the county Health Department’s role in the enforcement effort will be complete. It will then be up to whether future legislation will make the sale and distribution of synthetic marijuana products illegal.

Assemblyman Anthony J. Brindisi, D-116, Utica, announced last week he continues to push for legislation banning the substances.

At a forum about growing concerns over designer drug usage held for parents and community members at Rome Memorial Hospital on March 28, Detective Commander Bates said products like synthetic marijuana are "not illegal at this point," but Rome police representatives were "pushing for a local ban on the sale of this" and are in contact with city officials. Legislation was submitted to be on the agenda for the next Common Council meeting on April 11. Co-sponsors included councilors John Sparace and Kimberly Rogers, along with Police Chief Kevin C. Beach.

Bates said the legislation would make the "sale or possession" of synthetic marijuana illegal under the city ordinance.

"If two arrests are made within a one-year period, whether they’re residential or a business, then that would fall under the Public Nuisance Abatement Law already in existence in Rome and result in the closure of a property or business," he said.