TARPON SPRINGS — City commissioners approved an ordinance this month that bans the sale, use, distribution and manufacturing of synthetic marijuana and bath salts in Tarpon Springs.
"We really feel that this is a good tool for us to use to help us fight this epidemic," said Tarpon Springs police Chief Robert Kochen. "It's everywhere."
The Florida Legislature has banned more than 100 chemicals found in synthetic drugs, but drug manufacturers simply changed formulas to stay ahead of law enforcement by using other chemicals.
Making synthetic drug-related arrests is also challenging. Obtaining results of tests that determine the chemical makeup of the drugs can take months, Kochen said.
With the new city ordinance, police can confiscate all synthetic drugs. Anyone in possession of the drugs will be fined $500 per package. Officers will distribute notifications informing retailers of the ban "as soon as possible," the chief said.
Kochen acknowledged that drugs are being sold in Tarpon Springs, but declined to disclose details about how that is affecting the city, only adding that "a lot of these retailers are knowingly selling this stuff and making good profits on it."
Tarpon Springs joins several other Tampa Bay cities and counties that have outlawed synthetic drugs, including St. Petersburg, Brooksville and Hillsborough County, where one retailer was fined more than $1 million last year.
Synthetic marijuana, a concoction of herbs and chemicals, is sold in colorful packets with names like "Mr. Nice Guy" and "Dead Man Walking," according to the ordinance. Bath salts, also derived from synthetic substances, mimic the effects of cocaine and methamphetamine.
Dr. Raj Mathur, medical director of emergency services at Florida Hospital North Pinellas in Tarpon Springs, said he has noted an uptick in the number of patients suffering from the effects of synthetic drugs, including heart attacks, seizures and kidney failure.
Dozens of synthetic drug users have arrived for treatment at the hospital in the past three years. However, Mathur suspects there may be more because some patients don't admit to using the drugs and many synthetic products aren't detected in typical drug screens.
"The majority of the time when they come in," he said, "they are not in the mind-set to give us information."
Mathur has also witnessed some extreme cases. About two years ago, a man under the influence of synthetics collapsed in the bathroom of a gas station. He was discovered 18 hours later and taken to Florida Hospital. Doctors resuscitated him, but the man later died.
"Access is our No. 1 enemy," Mathur said. "The more accessible these things are to people, the more harm the uneducated consumer can have."
Contact Laura C. Morel at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727)445-4157.