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Synthetic drug concerns in Florida renewed by recent 'Miami Zombie' attack

TALLAHASSEE — Shortly after Attorney General Pam Bondi took office last year, she worked to outlaw man-made narcotic "bath salts."

The Legislature and Gov. Rick Scott followed with laws to ban chemicals found in "bath salts," "Spice" and other synthetic drugs sold at gas stations and specialty shops. As a result, many of these products disappeared from store shelves.

But the "Miami Zombie" attack and other high-profile incidents of uncharacteristically violent behavior have created questions about how substances with such harmful side effects remain accessible and, in some instances, legal.

Law enforcement agencies are concerned that manufacturers are finding ways to keep synthetic drugs on shelves by replacing banned compounds with ones that aren't illegal.

Cynthia Lewis-Younger, medical director of the Florida Poison Information Center in Tampa, said it's happening.

"They try and get around the law," she said.

The Bay County Sheriff's Office brought the "bath salts" issue to Bondi's attention in 2011. Now, Major Tommy Ford, the agency's second-in-command, said he is hopeful the Florida Department of Law Enforcement can work with the Legislature to make it harder for manufacturers to circumvent existing bans. If new laws address the chemistry of compounds or the process in which they are created, then it could make it harder for manufacturers to create new, legal substances, he said.

The toxicology test results for Rudy Eugene, who was shot and killed by a Miami police officer after he was found chewing off the face of a homeless man, haven't been released. So it is not known if he was under the influence of a synthetic drug as some have theorized.

Sold under non-threatening brand names like Ivory Wave, Vanilla Sky or Pixie Dust, they're often in packages marked "not for human consumption." Side effects can include violent hallucinations, combativeness, physical altercations and suicide attempts.

The synthetic drug market also includes substances created to mimic the effects of marijuana, often in products labeled as incense. Last week, the family of a Pasco County teenager hospitalized after smoking "Spice," a synthetic marijuana product, protested outside the gas station where he bought it.

Bay County began looking into "bath salts" last year and found shops were legally selling the substance that caused them so much concern. Anticipating an influx of 100,000 spring breakers with cash to spend and lowered inhibitions, Sheriff Frank McKeithen wrote a letter to Bondi asking for help.

"Everybody was starting to see the problem," Ford said.

Days later, Bondi issued an emergency order temporarily outlawing the chemical compound in "bath salts." In March 2011, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency placed an emergency ban on many synthetic drugs. In 2011 and 2012, Scott signed legislation adding dozens of synthetic drug compounds to the state's list of banned substances.

Similar efforts are happening nationwide, and the numbers show reports of incidents involving "bath salts" and synthetic marijuana are decreasing.

The American Association of Poison Control Centers reported 720 calls regarding human exposure to "bath salts" in 2011, compared to 295 in May 2012. Poison centers reported 494 calls regarding synthetic marijuana that month, down from 597 in May 2011.

Meanwhile, law enforcement agencies have raided businesses and prosecuted owners who stock illegal substances.

Monday, the DEA said that Joel Lester, owner of Nature and Health in Boca Raton, pleaded guilty to conspiring to possess with the intent to distribute synthetic marijuana. Lester faces up to 20 years in prison and up to a $1 million fine.

In Miami-Dade County, commissioners are considering a complete ban on the sale or purchase of any products that imitate marijuana. The hope is the law will keep all synthetic marijuana off shelves even if manufacturers develop new chemical configurations to work around the state or federal bans.

Ford said law enforcement agencies are hopeful the state can solve the complicated issue even before new formulas can be created.

Currently, every new compound has to be identified before it is outlawed, he said. "We could have 10,000 different substances banned before long, as the chemists in China or wherever they are keep modifying them."

Miami Herald staff writers Patricia Mazzei and Charles Rabin contributed to this report. Tia Mitchell can be reached at tmitchell@tampabay.com or (850) 224-7263.

Synthetic drug concerns in Florida renewed by recent 'Miami Zombie' attack 06/11/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 12, 2012 9:24am]

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