Saturday, June 23, 2018
Public safety

Recent spice arrests in county were no fluke

It seemed like an unlikely place for a raid.

On April 12, Hernando sheriff's detectives, armed with a search warrant, showed up at a Mobil Mart gas station near Weeki Wachee Springs and arrested the store's owner and assistant manager.

The alleged crime: possessing and selling synthetic drugs.

Vice and narcotics unit detectives seized 891 packets of "super strong incense" and various other products commonly known as spice or K-2. The brightly colored packages, ranging from 3 to 15 grams and retailing for $10 to $20, bore names such as Jazz, Scooby Snax and Bugged Out.

Convenience stores have become a front line in the fight against products marketed as incense, potpourri or bath salts but smoked to get high. In recent months, authorities have arrested store clerks and owners in Pasco, Pinellas and Hillsborough counties.

The Weeki Wachee arrests marked the first for Hernando County and come about a year after deputies here started warning retailers that the products on their shelves would soon be illegal, if they weren't already.

Store owners and managers have largely heeded those warnings, said sheriff's Col. Mike Maurer.

"Those that don't," Maurer said, "we're going to address."

• • •

The events that led up to the decision to take a small-business owner away in handcuffs started more than a year ago.

By then, synthetic drugs had become popular with teens and adults alike. Easily accessible and undetectable in drug screenings, they were a relatively cheap, legal way to get a buzz. Retailers saw their bottom lines bolstered as the products flew off the shelves.

But experts warned that ingesting substances laced with mysterious chemicals pose serious health risks. People started showing up in emergency rooms suffering from agitation, paranoia, tremors, racing hearts, high blood pressure, shortness of breath, even psychotic episodes.

The federal Drug Enforcement Administration banned five chemicals used in the products, but manufacturers have continuously tweaked the ingredients to skirt the law. In early 2012, the Florida Legislature was poised to pass a new law that added compounds to the list of those already banned.

About that time, Hernando deputies fanned out across the county to warn retailers that the products on their shelves might already contain illegal ingredients and that a host of other products 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 the store. Others decided to take their chances and sell off their inventory.

In mid May, deputies visited the Mobil Mart at 9200 Commercial Way and delivered a warning to owner Gregory Alan Jones, said Capt. James Terry.

In November, Detective Chris Erickson spoke with Jones, 51, by phone. When Erickson visited later that month, Jones, of Brooksville, told him he took the products off the shelves but put them back after a vendor assured him the inventory was legal.

Erickson warned Jones that law enforcement agencies were testing various products to determine if they contained banned chemicals.

"Detective Erickson advised him of consequences if a positive test came back," Terry said. "Jones acknowledged that he was aware."

In December, Attorney General Pam Bondi issued an emergency ban on 22 additional substances. Erickson hand-delivered an updated list to Jones. Two weeks later, a deputy visited again, and Jones removed his product display, Terry said.

In February, the Sheriff's Office received a complaint that spice was being sold at the Mobil station. On March 7, assistant manager Shirley Ann Lane sold an undercover deputy several packets of the product displayed at the front counter.

On April 9, test results came back from a Florida Department of Law Enforcement laboratory: The product tested positive for a banned substance on Bondi's updated list.

Jones and Lane, 64, of Hudson, were arrested and charged with selling a controlled substance — a second-degree felony punishable by up to 15 years in prison — and being in possession of a controlled substance with intent to sell. They were released from the Hernando County Detention Center the same day after posting $10,000 bail.

Neither Jones nor Lane had been arrested in Florida before last week, records show.

Both declined to comment when a Times reporter visited the store last week. Jones said he has hired Brooksville attorney Jeffrey Cario to represent him. Cario did not return messages left at his office.

The Mobil station is the only Hernando business detectives are aware of that was openly displaying the products, Terry said.

"We have reports of others selling it, but not openly," he said, "and they are being investigated."

• • •

The Florida Legislature this month passed a bill officially banning the substances included in Bondi's order, but some local governments are taking a broader approach. Hernando might soon be one of them.

Terry said the Sheriff's Office is drafting a local ordinance for the County Commission's review. He did not provide specifics because the ordinance is a work in progress.

A measure approved last week by the Tampa City Council offers insight into one approach. The rule says something is a synthetic drug when it meets two or more conditions. Among them: It's advertised to be a product with a use for which it is rarely, if ever, used; it's sold in liquor stores, smoke shops, convenience stores or other retailers that typically don't sell the advertised products; and its packaging makes claims such as "does not contain any chemical compounds prohibited by state law."

Under the Tampa ordinance, selling the synthetic drugs can be punished by a fine up to $500, a jail sentence up to 60 days or both.

Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Reach Tony Marrero at [email protected] or (352) 848-1431. Follow @tmarrerotimes on Twitter.

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