Friday, April 20, 2018
Public safety

Designer drugs slip past prosecution

TAMPA — The term "designer drug" was coined by a University of California at Davis pharmacologist in the '80s, used to describe man-made drugs more potent than ever.

Ecstasy. PCP. GHB. LSD.

As legislators outlawed these drugs, manufacturers simply tweaked the formulas to get new, legal versions. Authorities realized they were always behind.

So federal lawmakers passed a bill to outlaw designer drugs in 1986. But it has been largely ineffective.

Called the Federal Analog Act, the law states that any chemical "substantially similar" to a controlled substance will be treated as one, if intended for human consumption.

It was the first time the government had tried to outlaw entire groups of drugs.

And it should have stopped bath salts.

• • •

Over the past century, synthetic drugs have been born in laboratories, usually for medical purposes.

Bath salts are primarily derivatives of the drug cathinone. One of the original versions was first distributed as an antidepressant. But people started abusing these drugs. Authorities outlawed cathinone in 1993.

Then, in late 2010, authorities in Louisiana noticed a similar drug in packages labeled "bath salts" and "plant food," available in convenience stores and online.

They were legal — unless prosecutors used the Federal Analog Act.

The cathinone derivatives found in "bath salts"— methylone, MDPV, mephedrone — were structurally similar to cathinone, and they provided similar effects.

But prosecutors have shied away from using the very act designed to stop drugs like these.

In fact, the Federal Analog Act has never been used in the Middle District of Florida.

It is just too weak, several lawyers told the Tampa Bay Times.

One problem: It's hard to define "similar," said Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi.

These cases often turn into battles of experts — expensive cases to mount. The defense's witnesses describe the compounds' differences. The prosecution's witnesses talk about similarities.

Meanwhile, the law's vagueness poses another legal challenge, explained attorney Joseph Ruddy, chief of narcotics for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Tampa.

For a law to be used in court, the defendant must have known he did something illegal.

Analog Act cases have lost in court after the defense argues that the accused had no idea the drug was "substantially similar" to another, already outlawed one. It's complicated chemistry, and if expert witnesses cannot agree, how was the defendant to know?

"They can say they did not knowingly violate the law," Ruddy said.

• • •

So, what can authorities do in the fight against designer drugs?

They can strengthen the Analog Act.

One lawyer laid out his suggestions in the University of Pennsylvania Law Review, saying that "substantially similar" needs to be further refined — perhaps by saying the molecule can only differ by "one functional group."

Or the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration could publish what it considers potential analogs, wrote attorney Greg Kau.

Another strategy is to continue adding more drugs to the list of controlled substances. To fill the time gap while these bills become laws, authorities can use emergency orders, as Bondi did with several versions of bath salts.

In a recent interview with the Times, she hinted at a sweeping package her office plans to introduce in the 2013 legislative session that would help authorities fight synthetic drugs in the state.

She said lawmakers cannot outlaw entire classes of drugs because some have legitimate uses. But there are other strategies.

"We're looking at what we can legally do from a business perspective and from a regulatory perspective," she said. "Because good kids are taking these drugs."

Times news researcher John Martin contributed to this report.

Comments
One injured, suspect in custody in Ocala school shooting

One injured, suspect in custody in Ocala school shooting

OCALA — One student shot another in the ankle at a Florida high school and the suspected shooter is in custody, authorities said Friday.The Marion County Sheriff’s Office reported that the shooting happened Friday morning at Forest High School, which...
Updated: 1 hour ago
Flight attendants say ‘appalling’ Southwest flight photo confirms it — you’re not paying attention to the safety demo

Flight attendants say ‘appalling’ Southwest flight photo confirms it — you’re not paying attention to the safety demo

Mario Nunez called it a "huge shaking my head moment" when the photo inside the cabin of Southwest Airlines flight 1380 appeared on his TV.The story was about a terrifying emergency landing after an engine exploded 20 minutes into a trip from New Yor...
Updated: 1 hour ago
Suspect in Gilchrist deputies’ slayings has Tampa Bay ties

Suspect in Gilchrist deputies’ slayings has Tampa Bay ties

The man identified as the suspect who fatally shot two Gilchrist County deputies in a restaurant Thursday afternoon before taking his own life has ties to the Tampa Bay area.Deputies say John Hubert Highnote, 59, of Bell — who was found dead outside ...
Updated: 2 hours ago
A state trooper kept pulling women over to ask for dates

A state trooper kept pulling women over to ask for dates

TRENTON, N.J. — A New Jersey State Police trooper accused of repeatedly pulling over women to ask them out on dates has been indicted. The state attorney general’s office announced Thursday that 32-year-old Eric Richardson faces charges including off...
Updated: 4 hours ago
Pinellas detention deputy fired for using racial slur

Pinellas detention deputy fired for using racial slur

LARGO — Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri fired a detention deputy Friday after an internal investigation found he used a racial slur to describe black inmates.A fellow Pinellas County Jail deputy reported Jorge Lopez, 30, after he repeatedly used the s...
Updated: 4 hours ago
Portion of I-75 reopens in Sarasota after smoke settles over road

Portion of I-75 reopens in Sarasota after smoke settles over road

SARASOTA — A 10-mile stretch of southbound Interstate 75 has reopened in Sarasota County, after it was shut down earlier Friday morning due to smoke in the road.According to broadcast reports, the smoke was caused by a a prescribed burn in the area ...
Updated: 5 hours ago
Fugitive suspected in Bradenton woman’s death arrested in Texas

Fugitive suspected in Bradenton woman’s death arrested in Texas

SOUTH PADRE ISLAND, Texas — A woman suspected of killing her husband in Minnesota, then fleeing to Florida and killing a woman who resembled her in order to assume a new identity, was captured Thursday night at a South Texas resort.Two federal deputy...
Updated: 8 hours ago
Firefighters battle apartment complex fire in Tampa

Firefighters battle apartment complex fire in Tampa

TAMPA — Firefighters were battling a blaze at Captiva Club Apartments on Thursday night, according to the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office.According to video taken at the scene, the roof of one of the apartment buildings at 4401 Club Captiva Dr. ...
Published: 04/19/18
Two Florida deputies shot, killed at restaurant in Gilchrist County

Two Florida deputies shot, killed at restaurant in Gilchrist County

Two Gilchrist County sheriff’s deputies were shot and killed at a restaurant about 3 p.m. Thursday.The deputies were at Ace China restaurant in downtown Trenton when a man shot them through the restaurant’s window, a Sheriff’s Office statement said.A...
Published: 04/19/18
FHP: Distracted driver plunges more than 50 feet off I-275

FHP: Distracted driver plunges more than 50 feet off I-275

ST. PETERSBURG — A distracted driver walked away unscathed after his car plunged 50 feet off Interstate 275, according to the Florida Highway Patrol.Thomas Highhouse, 61, of Pinellas Park, was driving his 2016 Chevrolet Camaro south on Interstate 275...
Published: 04/19/18