ST. PETERSBURG — Police are cracking down on the illegal sale of synthetic marijuana, known as spice.
After seeing a dramatic rise in the sale of the drug, which St. Petersburg banned more than a year ago, undercover and uniformed officers launched an effort to target individuals and businesses still selling spice.
In the last six months of 2013, police averaged 39 synthetic marijuana-related arrests per month. That average is now 63.
They focused on convenience stores, which police say sell packets marked "not for human consumption" as a way to try to skirt the law. Dealers then roll the contents of those packets into joints that sell for $1 apiece in places like Williams Park in downtown St. Petersburg.
Police arrested 20 people and fined two convenience stores in Tuesday's sting. Frog Eyes Smoke Shop, 6040 Fourth St. N, received a $21,500 fine and Mario's Meat Market, 3701 Fifth Ave. N, was fined $23,000.
The City Council banned the drug in April 2013, meaning those caught with it are subject to an ordinance violation that comes with a $500 fine for each packet sold and, potentially, an arrest.
Police displayed the drugs they found, in brightly colored foil packets marked "Joker," "Wolf Pack" and "Flamingo" at a news conference Wednesday. They said the substance sells well among St. Petersburg's homeless population.
"Because of the inexpensive nature of being able to sell it or to buy it, it's become a drug of choice for individuals who might be down on their luck or in bad situations," Assistant Chief Luke Williams said.
Officers spent Wednesday afternoon handing out fliers warning of the drug's unpredictable nature in Williams Park, where more than half of the city's spice arrests are made.
"This stuff really messes up people," Sgt. Randy Morton told a group of men near a bus stop as he handed them a flier. "We don't want to see people degrading themselves with this stuff."
The men said they knew the park was a hot spot for spice, but weren't sure a flier would help change that.
"People are going to do what they're going to do anyway," said Douglas Stevens, 24.
Officers talked of extreme aggressiveness, agitation and even super-human strength among spice users. Morton said suspects often behave like those he's seen on crack cocaine.
"You have a person that's agitated, angry and he may become violent during the arrest," Morton said.
As Morton walked between bus stops, a call came through the radio at his shoulder. An undercover officer at the park spotted a man wanted for sale and possession of controlled substances. When officers yelled, he took off on his bike. When they caught him, they found $729 in his pocket.
After his arrest, Officer Barry Books went back to handing out the fliers. He asked people milling around the park to give it to someone they know who might be using spice.
"Can you help us out?" he said.
Contact Claire Wiseman at [email protected] or (727) 893-8804. Follow @clairelwiseman.