Faces of 2011: Grieving Aurora mom leads war on fake pot
By Denise Linke For The Beacon-News December 28, 2011 1:24PM
Aurora resident Karen Dobner has become a media regular in the past six months. NBC flew her to New York to appear on The Today Show. She’s given many TV and radio interviews on Chicago-area news stations. Reporters from around the world ask her for quotes.
She hates every minute of it.
“This is never what I wanted,” Dobner said minutes after completing a call-in appearance on a WGN radio talk show. “I’m a homebody. I hate getting in front of the camera. But getting the word out about synthetic marijuana is my goal, so I push myself to keep doing this for Max’s sake.”
Dobner’s 19-year-old son Max smoked some synthetic marijuana June 14, then suffered heart palpitations and hallucinations while trying to drive home. He crashed into a house on Route 31 in North Aurora across from Mooseheart and died instantly. It was the first encounter with any form of recreational drug for Max, said his mother, who described him as “the original straight arrow.”
“Max was a level-headed kid who never got into trouble and always did the right thing,” Dobner said. “He told other people not to do drugs. But when he and a friend went into a tobacco shop to buy a gift and saw this stuff, they assumed it was safe because it was legal.”
Synthetic marijuana, sometimes sold as “potpourri” or “spice,” is any of a group of lab-created chemical compounds that either duplicate the molecular structure of THC, the active chemical in marijuana, or mimic THC’s effects on the human body. Advertisers claim that users can experience a marijuana-like high without risking a positive drug test result. Extensive testing of Max’s blood and tissue revealed the THC-mimicking chemical JWH 210, Kane County Coroner Chuck West said last summer.
“They make this stuff in China or India, and they spray it on leaves or flowers with a spray bottle, so you never know what you’re getting,” Dobner told students and parents during a speech at Geneva’s Red Ribbon Week Expo in October. “It could just get you a little high, or it could end your life. It all depends on how much of the drug got put on the leaves.”
Dobner started researching the synthetic marijuana industry days after Max’s funeral.
“At first, I couldn’t read about it because I kept crying,” she recalled. “My friends read about it and told me what they learned, and after a few days I was able to start reading myself.
“My family took me to Wyoming to get away from everything, and I told everyone that when I came back my life was going to be completely different — not only because I lost my son, but because I was determined that people were going to find out about this drug.”
In August, Dobner, her family and friends founded To the Maximus, a nonprofit foundation dedicated to fighting the import and sale of synthetic marijuana. Since then, she has traveled the Midwest, lobbying legislators and law enforcement officials to enact and enforce bans on selling “potpourri.”
While her efforts have borne fruit — Aurora, North Aurora, Yorkville and other area communities, including Chicago, have passed ordinances outlawing the substance, and it will become illegal in Illinois Jan. 1 — Dobner declares that much more work needs to be done.
“If the Illinois ban is effective, we’re going to switch our focus to public education,” Dobner said.
She is working with the Batavia community access channel BATV and a videographer to produce public service ads about the dangers, and she will address students next month at Glenbard North High School, where student Michael Beljung died after ingesting synthetic marijuana in November.
She also will be trying to raise money to fund the foundation’s outreach efforts.
“We desperately need money to move forward,” she said. “We print and distribute thousands of educational brochures, and it’s very expensive even though we get a discount from our printer.”
For more information, visit http://www.tothemaximus.org.