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updated: 7/25/2011 5:49 AM

Aurora mom blames 'legal stuff' for son's death

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  • Max Dobner, a student at Waubonsee Community College, died in a June car crash after smoking potpourri incense. His mother, Karen Dobner, is on a mission to ban the sale of potpourri incense.

    Max Dobner, a student at Waubonsee Community College, died in a June car crash after smoking potpourri incense. His mother, Karen Dobner, is on a mission to ban the sale of potpourri incense.

  • John Starks/June 2011 Max Dobner died in this car crash after smoking potpourri incense, which is sold legally. His mother is fighting to change that.

    John Starks/June 2011 Max Dobner died in this car crash after smoking potpourri incense, which is sold legally. His mother is fighting to change that.

 
 

Max Dobner was in a panic, so he called his brother, Justin.

"I smoked that legal stuff. My heart is pounding," the 19-year-old said.

Justin told him to take a shower, then lie down.

Instead, Max left his Aurora house, doors wide open, and drove to North Aurora the afternoon of June 14. He blew through a stop sign at Mooseheart Road, crossed Route 31 and hit a garden wall, sending his vehicle airborne. The car sheared a limb off a tree as it flew, then smashed into a house, its engine coming to rest several rooms beyond the car body.

Dobner was pronounced dead shortly afterward at Provena Mercy Medical Center in Aurora. It was there Justin related to his mother, Karen, the conversation about the "legal stuff" -- potpourri incense. Karen now believes the incense was laced with synthetic marijuana.

She's channeling anger and grief into a cause: Telling others about the dangers of the product and trying to ban its sale.

Max, Karen Dobner's middle son, was a student at Waubonsee Community College who wanted to be a psychologist. He was well-liked at the sandwich shop where he worked.

"He was all about helping people every day of his life," said Karen Dobner, who is divorced from Max's father. "I always said, 'I do not have anything to worry about with Max.' "

Max told his mother he had tried marijuana once but didn't like it. This was a young man who was loathe to take an aspirin for a headache, Karen Dobner pointed out.

"You expect kids to experiment, but he ... Max was very responsible," she said.

But for whatever reason, he had spent the afternoon with a friend smoking a concoction of herbs laced with other chemicals that mimic marijuana. The friend turned the remainder of the package, and a receipt from the Aurora cigar store where they bought it, over to Karen Dobner. She gave it to Kane County Sheriff's Department investigators. Police have confirmed they have it in evidence.

Results of routine toxicology tests of Max's blood, urine, vitreous fluid and tissues have not been released yet, nor have results of tests looking specifically for synthetic cannabinoid compounds. The synthetic compounds don't show up in standard urine tests.

'Natural' high?

The incense -- sometimes called potpourri or spice -- is advertised all over the Internet, under hundreds of creative names -- Red Magic, Blueberry Skunk, Black Mamba are just a few. They are touted as a legal alternative to marijuana but certainly not advertised as such.

The packaging says it is made of marshmallow flower, althaea officinalis, which is used in herbal medicine.

But whatever the dry leafy substance, it is likely sprayed with synthetic marijuana compounds, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration. The DEA's 2011 "Drugs of Abuse" report says the compounds are often imported from China.

"The problem is quality control," said Danesh Alam, a Naperville-based psychiatrist who specializes in addiction medicine. Other substances, such as real marijuana, PCP or amphetamines, may be mixed in. Dosages of the cannabinoids can vary from package to package.

The substances can, like regular pot, raise blood pressure, increase heart rate, cause vomiting and seizures, induce panic, and bring on paranoia and hallucinations, said Alam, who is affiliated with Central DuPage Hospital.

The substances attach to the same receptors in the brain as natural THC, the active ingredient in marijuana. But they are often more potent than natural THC, according to the drug reference library of Norchem, a forensic drug testing laboratory.

Not much research has been done on its potential for addiction or its effect on the developing brain of adolescents, Alam said. And as far as he knows, only one U.S. laboratory has come up with a test for the synthetic substances.

"It really creates a challenge" for treatment, he said, when a person shows up in an emergency room agitated and in a full-blown psychosis, unable to tell doctors what he may have taken.

And he agrees with Karen Dobner that young people think that because the substances are legal in some places, they don't worry about safety. Or getting caught. A patient told him, after he ordered a drug test, "What I am using will not be picked up in your drug screen."

Alam began seeing more cases of abuse about three years ago, he said, and it has grown, perhaps related to increased media attention to the drug.

"We really, really put our kids in a dangerous situation" by not teaching them that just because something is legal doesn't mean it isn't harmful, he said.

Karen Dobner is grateful that Max didn't hurt anybody else crashing into the house. The home's residents were in the backyard.

Legality

Illinois has banned nine synthetic cannabinoid compounds under a law Gov. Pat Quinn signed last week. The DEA has temporarily banned the sale of the five most popular, while it considers whether to add them to the Schedule I narcotics list. The House and Senate are considering legislation that would make the five compounds illegal. It would also double the amount of time for the temporary DEA bans, to 36 months.

Karen Dobner and Alam note that when a drug compound is banned, drug designers typically tweak the formula to sidestep the law.

Karen Dobner has formed a nonprofit foundation, To the Maximus, to educate people about synthetic marijuana. She is lobbying for changes to drug laws and hopes to raise money for testing resources for police departments.

Lt. Patrick Gengler, the spokesman for the sheriff's department, thinks it is ridiculous that purveyors insist the product is potpourri and that the label says it is "not for human consumption." Their actions -- selling it in 1-gram packages, selling it in tobacco shops among products meant to be consumed -- say otherwise, he said.

"How many large packages (of real potpourri) do you have to buy to make your house smell good?" he said. And why only a gram, an amount considered "personal use" for other drugs of abuse?

"We are failing our kids ... and we move so slowly to ban (the compounds)," Karen Dobner said.