Sunday, February 18, 2018
Public safety

St. Petersburg spice ban helping police curb drug's use

ST. PETERSBURG — The blue Ford Escape, its windows tinted, rolled to a stop near the northwest corner of Williams Park.

The two St. Petersburg police officers had just begun their morning patrol when the driver, Rick Kenyon, pointed to a man deep in concentration sitting on a bench inside a bus shelter. Another busy day lay ahead.

"Dennis is right there," Kenyon said, "rolling a spice joint."

His head down, the man with the gaunt face and scraggly blond hair didn't notice them. He rolled the final joint over a copy of Awake!, the Jehovah's Witness magazine spread across his lap. Dennis Ritter, 36, held the twisted white paper to his mouth and licked it.

Kenyon's partner, Rob Taylor, stepped from the Ford and walked toward him.

Until about two months ago, the officers couldn't have done much about someone rolling spice joints in public, even if someone — like Ritter — did it in broad daylight as children passed by.

In April, the City Council banned the drug, formally referred to as synthetic marijuana. Those caught with it were suddenly subject to an ordinance violation that comes with a fine and, potentially, an arrest. Since mid May, St. Petersburg police have issued at least 75 ordinance violations, several of them to the same people multiple times.

A 2012 Florida law banned the possession of many chemicals found in synthetic marijuana, but the statute has offered little help because manufacturers continually adjust the formula. The local regulation provided St. Petersburg police with the most effective weapon yet to fight the drug's rampant use.

• • •

"Am I going to jail, Taylor?" Ritter asked as the officer counted the 29 joints he had confiscated.

Taylor nodded. The drugs had come from a bag labeled with "OMG" and the image of Snow White's dwarf Dopey.

Ritter, charged with the crime for the third time in a month, acknowledged that he had intended to sell the joints for $1 each. The price hasn't risen since the ban, but officers say joints have gotten thinner. Because St. Petersburg is surrounded by cities where spice has not been banned, its presence here remains ubiquitous.

Ritter said someone gave it to him, but refused to name the person. They had intended to split the profits.

His hands cuffed behind him, Ritter asked Kenyon if he was being charged only under the local ordinance. For now, Kenyon told him, but that might change. He and Taylor intended to send the drugs to a lab to test it for ingredients banned by the state.

"If this comes back with a controlled substance," Kenyon told him, "it's a felony."

Later, the two officers parked the Ford in a shady spot to fill out the arrest forms.

Taylor held up the evidence bag, packed with Ritter's joints.

"Just from experience and talking to people, they smoke three or four of these and it's pass-out city," he said. "If we can't move them, rescue gets called."

That call can mean big money: the ambulance ride, the care from nurses, the treatment from a doctor, the night in a hospital.

"That," Taylor said of the bag, "could have cost the taxpayers 10 grand."

About a half-hour later, as the officers continued their patrol, they spotted two men passing a joint back and forth at a bench near the World War I memorial.

The Ford looped the block. Taylor hopped out on the other side of a bus and approached them from behind.

The officer stepped in front of them and held out his hand. Timothy Barker, wearing a gray Adidas T-shirt and tattered jeans, gave him the smoldering joint.

"Why are we smoking spice right here?" Taylor asked.

Barker told him he and his boyfriend, Troy Gilmore, had just arrived. Taylor said he had seen them smoking. He knew that wasn't true.

When Gilmore realized he was being arrested and would be searched, he pulled from his pocket 14 joints wrapped in a pouch made of newspaper. The officers planned to send those off for testing.

Both men had been charged with the local violation just two weeks prior. As he waited to be loaded into a police van, Barker insisted that the new law will do more harm than good.

Spice, he said, is better than the alternatives.

"There's less people getting drunk. There's less people smoking crack. There's less people doing other drugs," he said. "How can that be a bad thing?"

In February, a Tampa Bay Times reporter spent a day in Williams Park and interviewed both men. By day's end, Gilmore had smoked so much he could barely speak or walk.

Just after 6 p.m. that day, an ambulance came for him. He spent the night in a hospital.

John Woodrow Cox can be reached at [email protected]


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