TAMPA — Law enforcement in Hillsborough County has begun citing store owners who sell synthetic drugs, with one Seffner business owner racking up more than $1 million in fines.
Most of the other businesses cited since last month are facing much lower penalties. Officials with the Sheriff's Office say products that go by such names as Scooby Snacks and Man of Steel appear to be disappearing from store shelves.
"Since the ordinance was enacted, our number of complaints has dropped," said Hillsborough Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Debbie Carter. "We can't attribute it to complying with the ordinance or whether they are just not openly displaying or marketing their products."
Hillsborough County commissioners in February enacted an ordinance that seeks to crack down on the sale of fake marijuana or other drugs often marketed as potpourri, bath salts, incense or other harmless-sounding household items. In actuality, according to law enforcement, the stuff inside the playful looking packets has no use for what the label indicates. Instead, it is smoked or consumed and can cause potentially harmful symptoms normally associated with illicit street drugs.
The state has tried to stop the sales of such products by outlawing their chemical mix. Manufacturers then just change the formula, creating similar but legal drugs.
Hillsborough County took a different approach, treating sales or marketing of such products as a civil infraction, like a code violation. Rather than deal with the chemical compounds, the ordinance makes it a violation to sell or market certain products pitched as one thing — potpourri, for instance — when it has no value for that use.
It prohibits the sale of under-the-counter products, brand names that appear to be marketed to children or packages that contain materials altered to look like street drugs, among other things.
The ordinance targets both store owners, as well as property owners if they are different people or companies, with $500 fines for each offense. Violators can have liens placed against stores or other properties.
"The goal here is to try to partner with the property owner to try to motivate the business owner to stop selling this product out of the store," said Jim Blinck, operations manager for Hillsborough County Code Enforcement.
Sheriff's deputies have issued citations upon hearing of sales or witnessing transactions themselves. In some cases they have conducted undercover operations, Carter said.
Their biggest sting so far involved a Citgo at 12020 E Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, where law enforcement officers seized 2,506 packages of the banned products, according to county records. Because store and property owners face penalties of $500 per incident or package, they have been issued $1.3 million in fines.
Reached at the store Friday, the man listed in county code enforcement records as the owner of the Citgo, Tariq Abedalqader You Hammad, denied he sold fake pot.
"We don't sell synthetic marijuana," he said. "We sell incense."
He added that he has sold the store since the citation, saying he just happened to be there Friday picking up some of his belongings, before referring questions to his attorney. The attorney did not return a message left with his office earlier in the day.
Other citations issued to stores in unincorporated Hillsborough County, Plant City and Temple Terrace have carried fines ranging from $500 to $2,500. (The city of Tampa has its own ordinance and enforcement.) About half the cases have been deferred as code or law enforcement officials seek to identify either the store or property owners.
Three people who own stores or properties took legal action to halt code enforcement proceedings against them, but their requests were denied in Hillsborough circuit court. The judge said they would have to make their court challenge after the code enforcement ruling.
Attempts to reach their attorneys Friday were unsuccessful.
County Attorney Chip Fletcher said the aim of the ordinance is not to amass large fines for the county. Those cited may seek to negotiate lesser penalties if they agree to stop selling banned materials.
"The goal of the program is to achieve compliance and stop the improper marketing of synthetic drugs," Fletcher said.
Bill Varian can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3387.