Aurora mom loses son, becomes catalyst in fight against synthetic drugs
By Denise Crosby email@example.com June 14, 2012 4:24PM
Karen Dobner (center), whose son Max was killed one year ago in a car crash, is comforted by Tammy Zolfo (left) and Max's grandmother, Margaret Rios, as they visit his gravesite on the anniversary of his death on Thursday, June 14, 2012. | Jeff Cagle
When: 1-6 p.m. Saturday
Where: Phillips Park, Parker Avenue West, south of Mastodon Lake, Aurora
What: Food, games, raffle prizes and support
Admission: Free (sales from all merchandise goes to the purchase of a gravestone for Max)
Updated: July 16, 2012 6:13AM
If, for a change, you want positive news coming out of our much maligned state, listen up: In 2011 there were 338 calls to the Illinois Poison Center regarding synthetic marijuana, including 105 from Jan. 1 to May 31. In that same five-month period this year, there were only 67.
Even more compelling, that downward spiral seems to go against a national trend. According to the American Association of Poison Control Centers, calls related to synthetic drugs increased 42 percent from 2010 to 2011 across the nation.
Many would like to believe the decrease we are seeing here is tied to the fact Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s office has confiscated more than $500,000 in synthetic drugs from retail stores since Jan. 1. That includes, most recently, $8,000 worth of these poisonous products turned over from two Carpentersville retailers on May 30 as part of “Operation Smoked Out.”
Kudos must go to the attorney general’s office and law enforcement groups that have made it a priority to get this garbage out of our stores. But the face that should most clearly be identified with this success belongs to Karen Dobner, a 50-year-old Aurora woman who, a year ago Thursday, was thrust into the role of grieving mom and national advocate.
Neither were roles she ever imagined or wanted.
On June 14, 2011, Dobner, a single mom of three who ran a small eBay business from her home, learned her 19-year-old son Max had crashed his car into a house on Route 31 in North Aurora after speeding more than 100 mph down Mooseheart Road. A few hours later she found out that before the fatal accident, he’d been smoking synthetic marijuana purchased legally from a shop in an Aurora mall.
At that time, few of us adults — Dobner included — had ever heard of this so-called fake pot. But before that horrific day had ended, she vowed to make it her mission to fight these products responsible for her son’s death. Within days she organized To the Maximus Foundation, although she was still so numb her friends had to manage the website that displayed Max’s photo and a picture of the mangled car.
Within weeks she was on national television talking about how teens are smoking the substance that is sold over the counter as potpourri, but can lead to panic attacks and hallucinations.
Within months, she had convinced Aurora and dozens of other towns to ban these synthetic drugs.
By the end of 2011, the attorney general’s office, in response to Dobner’s compelling story, kicked in “Operation Smoked Out,” which goes after retailers selling these products by attacking the problem from a labeling standpoint rather than what’s inside the package or how it’s used.
With Dobner as the biggest cheerleader, the AG has also led the charge for more aggressive legislation that would give law enforcement the tools needed to outlaw, from a labeling standpoint, these toxic substances linked to hundreds of suicides and violent acts.
Most recently: On May 31, the General Assembly approved a bill toughening the Jan. 1 law that bans specific formulas of synthetic marijuana and bath salts, making it even more difficult for manufacturers to sidestep the law.
“With drug makers continually reformulating these toxic substances, our state laws can quickly become outmoded when new variations arrive in stores,” Madigan said at the time. “This bill seeks to end the game of ‘catch up’ by classifying as illegal any chemical that’s sold to be taken as a drug, regardless of what it’s called or how it’s labeled.”
According to Cara Smith, Madigan’s deputy chief of staff, local police simply marched into retail stores selling these synthetic drugs — one Champaign shop owner admitted to making $4,000 a day from these products — and sent a powerful but unspoken message: Hand over the stuff or risk prosecution.
“Of the 65 establishments visited so far, all of them have complied,” she said.
Credit from state
Smith said the operation has met with such success that other states are turning to Illinois as the model in dealing with the alarming increase in the use of synthetic drugs. Madigan’s office has even begun working with White House Drug Czar Gil Kerlikowske.
It is “Karen Dobner’s bravery and advocacy,” Smith added, that led to the attorney general saying enough is enough — and finding ways to educate users, retailers, parents, law enforcement and doctors about these products linked to hundreds of suicides and violent acts.
“By the time we knew there was a problem,” she said, “we were really behind the eight ball.”
Dobner, as humble as she is strong, downplays her role in all this. But there’s something about a grieving mom whose son had never been in trouble a day in his life that gets attention. And even she admits, “Had Max not been such a good kid, they would not have listened.”
‘I miss him so much’
While tremendous strides have been made in battling this problem since Max’s death, Dobner has no plans to slow down. She will continue to work at the local, state and federal levels to give police the tools they need to stay ahead of the manufacturers. And from 1 to 6 p.m. on Saturday, she and the To the Maximus Foundation will be sponsoring a picnic and game day at Phillips Park in Aurora in memory of Max, to raise awareness and to applaud local law enforcement efforts.
Dobner has no plans to slow down — at least not without a fight. The foundation is running out of money, so she’s hoping Fox Valley Congressman Randy Hultgren can help expedite the not-for-profit application so the foundation can go after much-needed grants to continue.
All of this work, of course, leaves her physically and emotionally exhausted — especially this week as she looks back on how her life has changed so dramatically this past year. That’s when the face of a tough advocate gives way to one of a grieving mother.
“I could have rolled up in a ball like a lot of parents have, but I did not want my beautiful son’s ugly death to be for nothing,” she said. “The foundation has saved me from unbearable grief.
“Yet every day I cry because I miss him so much.”