Monday, December 18, 2017
Public safety

Hillsborough County to fine sellers of synthetic drugs

TAMPA — Bath salts and synthetic marijuana will likely be harder to find in Hillsborough County within the next few weeks.

On Wednesday, county commissioners unanimously passed an ordinance that will fine people selling synthetic drugs up to $500 for each package. They expect it will persuade store owners countywide to take the dangerous products off their shelves.

"This hits them financially, which is where they're benefiting," said Hillsborough sheriff's Col. Donna Lusczynski.

This approach avoids an uphill legal battle. Currently, drug manufacturers can tweak the formulas of illegal designer drugs to come up with similar, but legal, versions.

It is also difficult for law enforcement to verify whether the drugs they come across are illegal because they do not have street-level testing kits. Synthetic drugs must be sent off for expensive testing, and arrests often are not immediate.

Under this ordinance, the county does not care about the particular drug inside the packages. If it looks like bath salts or synthetic marijuana, they can fine the seller.

"The problem with these synthetic drugs is they're marketed toward kids," said Tampa police spokeswoman Laura McElroy. "So anything that gets them off the shelves and keeps them out of the hands of kids is a good thing."

Senior assistant county attorney Paul Johnston says he hopes the store owners will voluntarily get rid of the drugs.

Workers from Hillsborough County's Code Enforcement Department and the Consumer Protection Agency plan to warn workers at stores known to sell synthetic drugs. They'll visit the shops and mail letters to inform them of the ordinance before authorities start to enforce it.

And they will enforce it, said Kevin Jackson, chief investigator for the Hillsborough County Consumer Protection Agency. County workers will go back to the problem stores to make sure the product is gone, he said.

He and Commissioner Sandy Murman likened this effort to previous ordinances passed regarding sweepstakes cafes and pain management clinics. When the laws are not doing enough, administrative approaches can persuade people to stay in line, they said.

"We hit them where it hurt, which is in their business, in their pocketbooks," Murman said. "And I think this is the way to attack it."

Pinellas County, meanwhile, plans to ask the Legislature to outlaw additional formulas of these synthetic drugs. The state already has made more than 100 versions illegal, and in December, Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi used emergency powers to ban 22 additional substances.

Last summer, the Pinellas County Commission considered the idea of banning the county's estimated 500 convenience stores from selling synthetic drugs, but the board never took a vote.

Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3433.

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