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St. Petersburg moves to ban synthetic marijuana

Nicholas Terolli smokes a rolled cigarette filled with a synthetic marijuana called spice that he bought for $1 in Williams Park last month in downtown St. Petersburg.

WILL VRAGOVIC | Times

Nicholas Terolli smokes a rolled cigarette filled with a synthetic marijuana called spice that he bought for $1 in Williams Park last month in downtown St. Petersburg.

ST. PETERSBURG — It may soon be illegal to sell synthetic marijuana in the city.

In an effort to reduce problems with synthetic drugs known as spice and K2, Mayor Bill Foster is moving forward with a plan to ban such drugs from store shelves.

People also would be prohibited from possessing such drugs or selling them to another person. People caught could face a civil infraction or arrest.

"It's just frying people's minds," Foster said.

The City Council's Public Safety & Infrastructure Committee gave Foster permission Thursday to have the city attorneys write such a law.

Foster detailed troubles that police encounter when confronting users. He gave an example of people on spice who have wanted to fight a police officer who is nearly 7 feet tall.

The spice problem is citywide, police said. Officers see it in schools and in city parks.

"The largest drug problem in Williams Park is spice," said Sgt. Randy Morton, who supervises a team of downtown officers.

The drugs are usually made of plant material that is dried, ground up and soaked with chemicals known to produce mind-altering effects.

Spice is marketed as giving a mellow high, similar to marijuana. Often, though, the drug causes increased heartbeat, vomiting, seizures and hallucinations, leading to violent behavior.

The Police Department recently sent letters to store owners across the city to remind them of a 2012 state law that bans the possession of many chemicals found in synthetic marijuana.

The law has provided minimal relief for street cops because manufacturers simply change formulas.

"These chemists out there are very smart," Foster said. "They're bad."

With marijuana and cocaine, a test allows police to instantly determine if drugs are real. Not with spice. Testing takes about two months at a lab.

"It's unregulated," said Assistant police Chief David DeKay. "Across the country, communities are dealing with this."

City attorneys plan to examine other local ordinances for ideas, including similar laws in Pasco and Hillsborough counties.

Foster said he and police Chief Chuck Harmon will meet sometime this month with Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, Bob Dillinger, the public defender in Pinellas and Pasco counties, and Thomas McGrady, chief judge of the Pinellas-Pasco County Circuit, to further discuss the issue.

Foster stressed that an ordinance is only a tool and will not solve the spice problem plaguing the city.

Still, Morton said an ordinance could make chronic users seek help from drug counselors instead of being slapped with handcuffs and hauled to jail.

"We know arresting everyone isn't the solution," he said.

Mark Puente can be reached at mpuente@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8459. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/markpuente.

St. Petersburg moves to ban synthetic marijuana 02/28/13 [Last modified: Thursday, February 28, 2013 11:17pm]
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