ST. PETERSBURG — Less than a block from City Hall is a place people call Spice City.
With a decision the City Council made Thursday morning, that place — Williams Park — may not have that name much longer.
Council members unanimously voted to ban synthetic marijuana, a drug commonly referred to as spice and smoked in abundance at the downtown park. By next week, shop owners will no longer be able to carry it and people will be prohibited from possessing or selling it to each other.
Anyone caught with the drug will be subject to an ordinance violation that comes with a fine and, potentially, an arrest.
"You just have to take it one step at a time and this is a good step," council member Bill Dudley said before the vote. "I hope we send a message out that this will not be tolerated in our community."
A February story in the Tampa Bay Times illustrated how alcohol and drugs — especially spice — have overwhelmed the park. The smoke there is often so oppressive that it gives headaches to passers-by.
Spice joints have even become the park's currency. Each morning, people pool money and head to a grocery mart, where cashiers sell 10-gram packs, like "Mad Hatter" and "Scooby Snax Potpourri" to people they know. One $20 pack turns into 30 joints that sell for $1 each. Profits go to bus passes, booze, pills, marijuana or, often, more spice.
Soon after the Times story published, council members vowed to once again make the park a safe, welcoming space for families and downtown professionals.
Within weeks, Mayor Bill Foster moved forward with the proposed spice prohibition.
Although a 2012 Florida law banned the possession of many chemicals found in synthetic marijuana, council members believed the local ordinance was necessary because manufacturers have continually adjusted the formula, rendering the state statute useless.
The local law casts a far broader net in its ban of all "illicit synthetic drugs." It also mentions manufacturers who write "not for human consumption" on packs of drugs clearly meant to be smoked.
Beyond Williams Park, the new law also should help combat the drug's spread among young people. Some have believed its legality meant it was safe. Others have used it, as opposed to other drugs, to avoid failing drug tests.
"Up to this point," Foster said, "a 10-year-old could buy it."
Spice has made the job of street cops especially difficult. When officers have caught people with the drug, they could confiscate it and take the person's information but weren't able to make an arrest until weeks later when a lab showed the drug contained one of the banned ingredients.
Calling it synthetic "marijuana" is, in many ways, a misnomer. Unlike the mellow high caused by marijuana, spice often sparks paranoia, irritability and violence.
"This spice is unbelievable," downtown deployment team Officer Rick Kenyon said recently. "We've had some guys for 10 years and we've never had a problem with them. Now, the same guys are on this spice and they want to fight us."
John Woodrow Cox can be reached at [email protected]