Friday, May 25, 2018
Public safety

Pasco commissioners take new approach to ban 'Spice'

DADE CITY — Calling their approach a unique way to combat synthetic marijuana and other drugs known as "Spice," Pasco County commissioners on Tuesday gave initial approval to an ordinance targeting store owners based on the packaging and marketing of the drugs.

The ordinance would levy a $500 civil fine for each individual package of the drugs, which are openly sold at some convenience stores. Other brand names include "K2," "Scooby Snax" or "Voodoo Child."

Going after the drugs based on how they are sold — instead of their chemical components — could help deputies stay one step ahead of ever-changing substances designed to evade state and federal drug laws.

County Attorney Jeff Steinsnyder called Pasco's ordinance "probably the first of its kind here in the state of Florida." It could receive final approval next month.

Sheriff Chris Nocco's office began working with the county attorney's office on the ordinance in June. He called it an innovative tool that other cities and counties would soon copy.

Even with the proposed new rules, Nocco acknowledged savvy teens could still get their fix, either online or through retailers who hide the drugs behind the counter.

But he said the proposal would remove the impression that synthetic drugs are a safe, legal alternative to marijuana or other drugs.

"Our biggest problem we had was teenagers who say, 'Well I can buy it over the counter, what's wrong with that?' " he said. "It puts an emphasis out there that this is an illegal product."

Sheriff's Lt. Chuck Balderstone added: "We don't want to be known as that county where people can come and have Spice available to them."

The ordinance makes it illegal to sell or possess such drugs. Deputies will be allowed to consider the total weight of several factors when determining if a substance is an "illicit synthetic drug." The ordinance is broad regarding these factors, but it also seeks to exclude other legitimate products, like food, that are regulated by other agencies.

A red flag, for instance, could be a packet labeled as "potpourri" that is priced significantly higher than regular potpourri. Or it could be a label saying "not for human consumption" when the product is marketed as something that will get a person high. Another might be the lack of an ingredient list or a label saying the substance is not banned by state drug laws.

"Clearly this is a sham," said Kristi Sims, the assistant county attorney who wrote the proposal. "It stretches credibility for somebody to believe that this tiny packet of potpourri is potpourri."

Tuesday's decision came as welcome news to Denise Szulis, a member of the Save Pasco group that raises awareness about the dangers of synthetic drugs. Her group has been protesting outside stores that sell such chemicals while also writing thank you letters to stores that don't. Before the measure is adopted, she will push for a provision to make the $500 fine a minimum penalty, not a maximum.

"We want to make sure that is a stiff enough penalty that it'll be enough of a deterrent to retailers," she said.

The penalty could escalate quickly. If a store owner is caught with just 100 packets, he or she could be on the hook for $50,000. "This ordinance carries the potential for a fairly significant monetary fine," Sims said.

The ordinance also seeks to curtail the display of drug paraphernalia such as bongs or pipes. Stores could no longer openly sell such items if they allow minors to enter without their parents. Stores would have to sell such paraphernalia in a separate room where minors cannot enter.

"Little children should not be brought up coming into a convenience store and seeing these pipes," Nocco said.

The new measure still faces another public hearing, on Nov. 7 in Dade City, before a final vote.

Among Tampa Bay area counties, Pasco would be the first to adopt an anti-Spice ordinance. Pinellas introduced a proposal to create a committee that reviews new drugs as they come on the market and adds them to a list of banned substances. That effort has since stalled. Hillsborough commissioners directed their attorneys to begin writing an ordinance in July, but that proposal is not yet finished. Hernando is monitoring Pasco's effort.

Sims said most of the local ordinances started in South Florida and have since migrated north. But those efforts all sought to specifically identify drugs based on their chemical composition. That is problematic because local officials are testing potentially harmful substances while the products remain on the shelves. It also puts a strain on local resources.

"As soon as the Legislature acts to put a chemical compound on a controlled list, then the chemical compound is tweaked just enough to not violate the state laws," she said.

Lee Logan can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6236.

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