BROOKSVILLE — Authorities could soon have another tool to combat synthetic drugs in Hernando County and the city of Brooksville.
The Brooksville City Council on Monday will consider an ordinance to ban products such as bath salts, incense and potpourri that are marketed for one purpose but ingested to get high. A similar ordinance is expected to land on the County Commission dais within the next four to six weeks.
Sold under labels such as K-2 and Spice, the products have been linked to convulsions, tremors and deadly overdoses. State laws have banned scores of specific chemical formulations of the synthetic drugs, only to see manufacturers tweak the compounds slightly to make them legal. So local jurisdictions are taking a different approach by crafting ordinances that address general characteristics of the products and their packaging.
"Manufacturers are changing the formula constantly, and we can't keep up with it, and they're also changing the packages and what they call it," said assistant city attorney Jim Fisher. "This is a way to get it off the shelves."
County and city attorneys throughout the state are conferring on the issue so ordinances are similar from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, Fisher said.
The draft ordinances for Brooksville and Hernando County, like those passed recently by the city of Tampa and Hillsborough County, say something is a synthetic drug when it meets two or more conditions.
• It's advertised to be a product with a use for which it is rarely, if ever, used and includes warnings typically not found on those products such as "not for human consumption."
• Its packaging makes claims such as "does not contain any chemical compounds prohibited by state law," "legal herbal substance" or "100 percent compliant guaranteed," or suggests the user will experience a high, euphoria, relaxation or mood enhancement.
• It has a high price, misleading directions or a brand name similar to slang for illicit street drugs. Brooksville's ordinance offers more than 120 examples, including "Black Mamba," California Dreams," "Maui Wowie," "Pixie Dust," "Kryptonite," "Scooby Snax," "Mr. Happy" and "Pineapple Express."
Violations of the ordinance would result in civil citations, not criminal arrests. Under the Brooksville ordinance, a repeat offender could be fined up to $1,000 for selling the products. Penalties set by Hernando's ordinance were not available last week.
Brooksville Police Chief George Turner noted that violators could ultimately be criminally prosecuted because the products would be seized and tested for substances banned by state law.
"And (violators) would pay for the test," Turner said.
There have been no arrests for synthetic drugs in Brooksville, thanks largely to an effort to educate store owners, who have voluntarily stopped carrying the products, Turner said. But having the ordinance in place will aid in enforcement efforts.
"It offers a broader definition of what a synthetic drug is, and it will cover a lot more substances that could come along in the future," he said.
A similar ordinance in Pasco County got its first test last month when a county judge found a mini-mart owner guilty of 47 violations and ordered him to pay a $23,558 fine. The Pasco rule has a fine of $500 per package.
That sounds steep, but Hernando might want to follow suit, said Hernando sheriff's Col. Mike Maurer.
"You want to hit in them in the pocketbook and make them not want to keep selling it," Maurer said.
The Sheriff's Office has also waged a largely successful awareness campaign, Maurer said.
In early 2012, deputies fanned out across the county to warn retailers that the products on their shelves might contain illegal ingredients and that a host of other ingredients would probably be outlawed soon, too.
Of the Hernando stores visited by deputies, 19 carried the products. Some retailers took them off the shelves before deputies left. Deputies have since followed up with stores and the percentage of retailers in compliance is in the high 90s, Maurer said.
But not everyone heeded the warnings, and the Sheriff's Office made its first synthetic drug arrests earlier this year.
In both cases, undercover deputies purchased packets of the products from gas station convenience stores. The contents were then sent to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to be tested for banned compounds.
When the results came back positive, vice detectives arrested the owner and an assistant manager of a Mobil station in Weeki Wachee and the owner and an employee of a Marathon station just to the north on U.S. 19.
A civil ordinance would have accelerated the process, Maurer said.
"We have young people in our community getting their hands on this stuff," he said, "so we want to work as quickly as possible to get it off the streets."