TAMPA — The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office warned retailers months ago to stop selling synthetic marijuana.
A letter sent to area businesses in March offered owners the chance to turn over inventory of the drug to the Sheriff's Office before it became illegal to possess.
But not everyone cooperated.
On Friday, undercover officers in the sheriff's Special Investigations Division along with agents of the Florida Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco raided 10 convenience stores and arrested 15 people for selling the designer drug, said Tom Feeney, commander of the Special Investigations Division.
Officers confiscated nearly a half-million dollars in drugs.
"There were a number of these stores, despite our warnings, that continued to act as though they were impervious to our law enforcement efforts," Feeney said.
The drugs, sold under labels such as K-2 and Spice, are marketed as incense or plant food.
The drugs have been linked to convulsions, tremors and deadly overdoses.
"This is no different than cocaine, no different than heroin, no different than PCP," Feeney said. "And nobody ... has any earthly idea what long term effect this drug is going to have on kids in this community."
Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi launched a crusade against synthetic drugs in 2011, first issuing an emergency rule outlawing so-called "bath salts" that mimic cocaine or amphetamine.
This year, Gov. Rick Scott signed a bill that expanded the number of chemical compounds banned.
Still, it can be hard for prosecutors to prove wrongdoing in court because as more chemicals are outlawed, manufacturers tweak the formulas to get new, legal versions.
None of the drugs confiscated in Friday's haul had been tested yet, Feeney said. But those arrested were charged under the Federal Analog Act, which states that any chemical "substantially similar" to a controlled substance be treated as one, if intended for human consumption.
"It's uncharted territory," Feeney said. "We've got to test those laws and we've got to set a precedent."
And this won't be the end of arrests, Feeney said.
"Our efforts don't stop here," he said. "We are going to vigorously investigate any and all complaints."
Shelley Rossetter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 661-2442.