Jason Lang is trying to fashion for himself something that is rare in life: a do-over. And if he does, maybe he can set an example for others who fell for drugs as hard as he did.
Lang had a good life, as he sees it. He was running a successful cab company, making good money, and then he wanted to expand his entrepreneurial horizons.
He thought there might be a place in Batavia for a head shop with a tattoo and piercing parlor attached. He called it The Laughing Budda.
Good name. Bad business.
"I opened the smoke shop and that was like the worse mistake of my life," Lang said. " I opened that because at the time, I was bored. The cab company at its peak and I wanted to find something new. As an entrepreneur, I was always thinking of different ideas so I thought of a tattoo, piercing and smoke shop and then the troubles that came with that business took me out of reality.
"It’s just a big regret," he added, "...If I could go back in time, I would have put more into the cab company instead of choosing another business."
Lang said he didn't start using drugs, specifically bath salts, until after law enforcement raided his shop and seized much of his inventory.
The seizure cost him more than $200,000, he said, and brought him to the brink of financial ruin.
He became depressed, he said.
Authorities had seized much of the synthetic drugs stored in his shop, but they didn't get all of it. The inventory he had left over, he started using.
This was the spring of 2012, when news was starting to spread across the country of people doing bizarre things while reportedly high on a form of synthetic drugs known as bath salts.
By the summer, the strange behavior had spread to Batavia, with people climbing on roofs, getting into odd confrontations, causing trouble in the emergency room at UMMC, and Lang himself calling police with reports of gunshots at a local hotel (it didn't happen, and he was arrested for making a false report) and weaving tales of elaborate conspiracy theories.
"I just lost my mind," Lang said. "I was acting completely crazy. I had no concept of reality. I thought all these strange, crazy things were going on. I kept having run-ins with law enforcement and I got placed under mental arrest. It was just insane."
Lang knows he contributed to the rise of bath salt usage in Genesee County, and he now regrets it and apologizes to the community for it. But about the time his shop was closed, the 420 Emporium opened at 400 Ellicott St. The insanity continued until federal, state and local authorities raided that shop and another of the chain's locations in Brockport and Fulton as part of a nationwide operation to rein in bath salt distribution.
At first, the Laughing Buddha was much like any other head shop that had existed for decades. It sold paraphernalia, such as glass pipes, that technically had legitimate uses other than the consumption of illicit drugs, and the shop also offered tattoos and piercings, but in the process of building his business, Lang attended conventions in Atlantic City and Las Vegas. Distributors there were pushing products such as K2, Spice (synthetic marijuana) and Amp, among other products generally known as "bath salts" that were said to mimic harder drugs, such as cocaine.
"They were really pushing it on the smoke shops saying, ‘it’s legal. It’s nothing to worry about,'" Lang said. "They said there were these huge profits involved."
So, Lang stocked up. The packets were available under glass at his front counter. The law at the time was a bit more ambiguous. The federal law dealing with what are called analogues was considered hard to enforce and Lang's shop wasn't raided until after state health officials determined the drugs violated health and safety standards.
At the time, Lang said then and admits now, he didn't think the drugs were a big deal and back then he defended his business practices.
"At the time I was like, ‘I don’t care. It’s their choice,’ " Lang said. "If somebody wants to do any drug, that’s their choice. That’s the outlook I had on it. Now, that I’ve been on the other side of the fence and addicted to drugs, I would never open a business like that again or sell drugs, or be involved with anything like that, because now I know firsthand what it does to people. I was naive to that before."
Lang's fall was probably as complete as they come.
According to Lang, by 2012, seven years after starting Batavia Cab, he was doing pretty well, pulling in $5,000 to $6,000 a week and by his own admission, feeling pretty cocky. He thought he had it good.
Before the year was out, he would have spent his first night in jail, had his name spread through the media from Rochester to Buffalo and be on the verge of losing his cab operation -- he did eventually sell it in 2013, and it is still in operation, with its third owner.
Criminal prosecution led to a chance at rehab, and through rehab, Lang met heroin.
"It was a big relief when I first started doing heroin because it took away all the paranoia and it got me away from the bath salts," said Lang, explaining the opiate's initial allure.
Of course, with heroin, once addicted -- and it's highly addictive -- the high you chase is elusive yet it's hard to function without the drug in your system. You need the drug just to feel normal (according to medical literature).
It didn't take long for heroin to wipe out what little money Lang had left and then he turned to shoplifiting. He was arrested in multiple jurisdictions, including as far away as Hamburg and Victor.
"I was even homeless at one point, which was a huge turnaround for me because just years prior I was vacationing all over with my family and staying in nice hotels, and then I’m homeless in Rochester and I’m a heroin addict," Lang said.
He was eventually arrested on felonies in Orleans and Ontario counties, which led to a prison term.
Prison included three months of 23-hours-a-day locked by himself in a cell. That gave him a lot of time to think, he said.
"I wasn’t using drugs and in those moments of clarity I could think about everything," Lang said. "That's all you could do is sit and think all day. I realized I really screwed up. I decided to just get through the prison time. I choose not to use drugs in prison, and there are tons of drugs in prison, and I stayed clean the whole time I was in there. Because of that, they sent me to shock camp where I became a squad leader for my platoon. I really excelled through all of that and I just decided I wanted to get back to the old me."
Once home, his son, Lathan, started pushing him to get back into the cab business. Lang said Lathan is already bitten by the entrepreneurial bug and helped him plan his return.
Lathan even came up with the name for the new cab company, Grab-A-Cab.
Lang had already determined he wanted to stay away from a name with a regional identification. He felt calling his previous cab company, Batavia Cab, limited its growth potential. It made it hard to expand into other counties.
"I liked that name," Lang said of Grab-A-Cab. "It seemed kind of modern and trendy and I thought it would be a good name that would go with expanding the business and developing an app."
Lang admits to having big plans. The new cab company should launch soon. He's got one cab painted and decaled and ready to go and he's hired six drivers and plans to add a second cab to his fleet as soon as he can. And, yes, he hopes to build an app for cabbies. He said it will borrow ideas from Uber, which can't legally operate in Upstate, but for licensed and properly insured hacks.
"I miss the cab business," Lang said. "I love driving. I love meeting people, talking with people, knowing people, knowing other business owners. I miss it."
He thinks Batavia is still a wide open market and he's heard from friends and family and former customers who say the cab business in Batavia hasn't been the same since he got out of it. He said he's already lined up several transportation contracts, so he'll get off to a good start.
But he knows to keep it going, he's got to stay clean, and that means not associating with the people he did back when he was hooked on narcotics.
"I don’t talk to anybody who is involved in selling drugs or using drugs," Lang said. "I stay away from all of that now. I’ve got a lot of clean time now and I just want to do good. I know I have the potential to do good and I have good ideas. I learned a big lesson from everything."
If he does good, he thinks both his example, the money he earns and the business he's able to build, will enable him to be in a position to help other addicts.
He's gone from a guy who thought drugs were just a recreational activity that only losers couldn't handle to somebody who now understands drugs can grab ahold of anybody and change their lives in horrible ways.
"I met people who have been using drugs since their teenage years and they don’t have any faith that there is any better life out there," Lang said. "They just keep relapsing and they just think there is nothing better. I want to prove to people that you can pull it together.
"I know people just look at addicts like scum of the earth," Lang added. "They're really not. There are a lot of really great people I’ve met in rehabs. A lot of people I met in prison, even though they may keep relapsing, going back to it, they don’t want that life. They don't want to be shoplifting and they don’t want to be committing whatever crimes they’re doing. They just have a really bad addiction that keeps leading them back to that."
He'd like to start a program for people who need a hand up, out of addiction.
"I'd like to help people who don't have entrepreneurial skills because nobody is going to give them a fair shot," Lang said. "There’s not a hot of help out there for people like that. Maybe I can help them with some other business venture, or help guys that need employment and need guidance and help them out because there's nobody who cares about them."