Hillsborough looking for way to ban sales of synthetic drugs

Scooby Snax, Mad Hatter, Herbal Incense, Spice, K2 Spice, Jonny Clearwater,  Caution and other names that appeal to young people.

State legislators have tried to ban the sales of these synthetic drugs commonly sold at convenience stores by outlawing the chemicals they contain. But then the makers simply alter the mix of chemicals that cause euphoria, mild hallucinations, and sometimes medical complications and occasionally death.

So Hillsborough County commissioners joined a growing number of local governments, including Pinellas County, in voting to explore a local law to ban their sales.

“Ladies and gentlemen, we have a grave, grave issue in our community that’s kind of been kept quiet,” said Commissioner Les Miller, who introduced the proposal. “It’s called synthetic drugs. It is a dangerous, dangerous drug.”

Lawyers for the county and Sheriff’s Office were tasked with finding ways to ban them, or borrowing ideas from other governments that have crafted ordinances. They were also asked to work with lawyers for the county’s three cities to put up a uniform front.

With any ordinance that is created, a violation would be a second-degree misdemeanor punishable by up to 60 days in jail and a $500 fine.

The challenge: It’s a relatively new frontier. There are no field tests for law enforcement to use if they catch someone with a suspected banned substance. And with drugmakers altering their cocktails to stay ahead of the laws, the county likely will take a broader approach.

One model, they say, may be the city of Sunrise in South Florida. Its mayor recently signed a law banning the sale or display of “aromatic plant material, containing or to which any synthetic chemical compound has been added for the purpose of mimicking the effects of a controlled substance.”

In taking that approach, lawyers will have to ensure the language of the local ordinance cannot be challenged as overly broad or vague.

“That’s the trick,” said Chris Brown, general counsel for the Sheriff’s Office.

Complicating matters further, commissioners asked that they fold in an effort to thwart people using other substances, such as bath salts, for the purposes of getting high.

Brown said products being sold have been likened to marijuana, but he said that is a bit of a misnomer. The packages usually contain some type of plant material, such as crushed tea, that is soaked in mind-altering chemicals and sometimes sprayed with something else to give it a pleasing scent.

The effects are not always the same, or even similar to marijuana. And little is known about the long-term effects of use.

Maj. Tom Feeney, commander of the special investigations division of the Sheriff’s Office, said he has seen people react in ways he likens to those of users of PCP when he started police work 32 years ago in Washington, D.C.

“If you look at the behavior (exhibited) by those that abuse this drug, they’re almost identical in my experience,” Feeney said.

The Sheriff’s Office in March sent letters to businesses around the county appealing to them to stop selling the drugs. There was some success, but it wasn’t universal by any means. So now commissioners are asking them to take a different step.

Their vote was unanimous.

In other action:

Commissioners voted unanimously to extend a deadline for county attorney applications and asked for new advertisements for the post. A majority of commissioners expressed dissatisfaction with the amount of detail they got from a California search firm about how it came to recommend four finalists. The firm was paid $25,000 to screen applicants.

Representatives of Ralph Anderson & Associates were not present Wednesday. The four people it recommended will remain finalists, but commissioners want to see if more names could be added to the list.

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