Denise Szulis works with people who have smoked synthetic marijuana, Spice or K2. She knows their stories. She spends her days helping them put their lives back together.
Some come to rehab, still having episodes. There's the man who stopped using the drug nine months ago and still can't control his emotions. The young woman who developed self-esteem issues since smoking Spice. The high school student who used the drug and now has to wear diapers.
"This isn't the kind of drug that people stop using and can go back to a normal life," said Szulis, who volunteers at the Pasco County Alliance for Substance Abuse Prevention. "These kids are hurt. It's not getting better."
A few years ago, spice was a cooking ingredient and bath salts were for a relaxing evening in the tub. That was before the terms came to describe the synthetic drugs that have driven people to lash out at families, fight deputies or plunge into psychotic episodes.
Spice, a common term for synthetic marijuana, is usually made of plant material that is dried, ground up and soaked with chemicals known to produce mind-altering effects. Bath salts are white crystals that are usually swallowed or snorted for a high akin to cocaine or amphetamines.
Spice is marketed as giving a mellow high, similar to marijuana, said Doug Leonardo, executive director of Baycare Behavioral Health, a mental health and substance abuse treatment center.
Often, though, it causes increased heartbeat, vomiting, seizures and hallucinations. Sometimes they stop. Sometimes they don't.
He has seen teens become aggressive in the treatment center, flipping tables. Others in a lull, "completely unaware that they're in an office in front of a therapist," he said. "Nobody really knows what you're going to get when you smoke this stuff."
About a year ago, the Pasco County Sheriff's Office heard the first tremors of Spice in the county. The word came from school resource officers and detectives. They were finding it in the high schools.
Investigators found it at convenience stores. Piled on shelves next to cigarettes and chewing gum. Out in the open. Legal.
The word spread to parents who had no idea about Spice or its effects. Sheriff Chris Nocco recalls hearing from mothers who went into their teenagers' rooms to find their floors littered with Spice wrappers.
Then came the medical reactions, the violence, the bodies.
By March, authorities said, a man from Wesley Chapel beat his 84-year-old father with a broom for "unknown reasons" after smoking Spice. He fought with deputies who arrived on scene.
April saw the death of 23-year-old Justin Plaza, an Army veteran who served in Afghanistan and whose parents described him as a smart and sweet young man. He began smoking K2, a popular brand of Spice. Soon after, he was checked into a veterans hospital for a mental health evaluation under the Baker Act.
Less than a week later, in a standoff with a SWAT team at his house in Dade City, he leveled a handgun at officers and died in a hail of gunfire.
The next month, a 19-year-old patient was checked into Trinity Medical Center after smoking Spice and became violent with staff.
Spice has been on the rise around the nation as well. The American Association of Poison Control Centers reported 2,906 synthetic-marijuana-related calls in 2010, more than doubling to 6,959 the next year. The association logged 639 more calls in the first month of this year.
Last year, the National Institute on Drug Abuse found in a survey, 11 percent of high school seniors said they were using synthetic marijuana.
As use of the drug grew, officials tried to fight it. In June, the Sheriff's Office asked convenience stores to place a sticker on their doors that read, "Synthetic Drugs Kill These Drugs Are Not Sold Here." On U.S. 19, there's a Sheriff's Office billboard thanking businesses for displaying the sticker.
Lawmakers tried to stop sellers with legislation, outlawing certain chemical components used to lace the drug. This year, 16 people were arrested in connection with selling the drug. But manufacturers grew wise and altered the compounds into new ones, with names like CP47 and HU10, that weren't covered in the laws.
Officers and deputies ran against more roadblocks enforcing the laws. Because the drugs are so new, lab technology companies have not developed ways of field testing the compounds, Nocco said. With other drugs, like marijuana and cocaine, deputies can test for illegal substances on scene, giving them probable cause for arrest. The technology doesn't exist yet to test Spice.
In August, a group of county attorneys met to draft a new strategy against the drug. Instead of outlawing the chemicals that can be quickly altered, they would go for a broader approach.
"Everybody else was just going against the substance," Nocco said. "We've been going against the wrapper."
Last month, county commissioners approved the Synthetic Drug Ordinance to ban "items described by misleading packaging such as 'potpourri,' 'synthetic marijuana,' or 'synthetic drugs.' " Under the ordinance, stores that continue to carry the drugs will be fined $500 per package.
Vickie Davis, owner of Georgia's Smoke Shop in Port Richey, told the Times on Dec. 12 that she brings in a "few thousand dollars a week" in Spice sales, making about 50 percent of the shop's income.
Nocco is less than sympathetic.
"We know what (sellers') weakness is: their greed," he said. "So we'll attack them on their greed."
He believes Spice is on the decline in the county. Though there is no way to track Spice-related crimes or arrests, he said the Sheriff's Office gets fewer tips about stores selling the drugs. He gets more thanks from parents. He said he's looking forward to the Sheriff's Office's next raid on convenience stores that are still selling Spice. Deputies will have more power to enforce the ordinance.
Above all, the drug will die down when sellers stop carrying it, Nocco said. "They need to realize they're making money off coffins of teenagers and tears of parents."
Alex Orlando can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6247.
Officials take an aggressive stance with raids and an ordinance that targets the marketing of the products.