LARGO — Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri announced plans Monday to aggressively enforce Florida's newly expanded ban on many of the chemicals found in "synthetic marijuana."
In the same breath, he acknowledged his office is losing ground in the fight against the wildly potent genre of designer drug, which has grown popular among teenagers even as it causes medical problems from kidney failure to seizures.
That's because manufacturers of the drugs, commonly carried alongside bubble gum and cigarettes in mom-and-pop convenience stores, are adept at tweaking their formulas to stay ahead of the law. When one chemical is outlawed, it's replaced with another. Legislators can't keep up.
In the field, police officers have no rapid-testing kits to evaluate the substances, as they do for such drugs as marijuana and crack cocaine. Each designer drug sample has to be mailed to a narcotics lab for a verdict on whether it contains an outlawed ingredient that may already have been phased out of use.
"We're going to go through this continual, cyclical process," Gualtieri said. "In the meantime, kids are dying."
It's not an uncommon lament among law enforcement officials throughout the Tampa Bay area.
The new state law took effect Sunday. This week, the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office will start handing shopkeepers notices about the ban, which makes it a third-degree felony to sell more than 90 chemicals that have been used in synthetic pot. The drug is also commonly referred to as "incense" and "potpourri," and has gone under the brand names K2 and Spice.
Similar efforts are under way in other bay area counties. The results have been mixed.
"All you have to do is change one molecule and it goes from being illegal to legal," said Maj. Tom Feeney of the Hillsborough Sheriff's Office. "That's a significant challenge."
Pasco Sheriff's Office spokesman Kevin Doll said lab analysis of the newest generation of synthetic potlike products on the shelves has yielded frustrating results.
"At this point, it looks like the chemicals being tested have been changed and are not illegal anymore," Doll said.
Hernando Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Denise Moloney said in an e-mail that deputies have begun notifying merchants of the new ban, but that many in the county "were not selling these products and the ones that were agreed to remove them."
In May, Tampa police visited more than 300 convenience stores in the city to warn owners about the ban. More than 40 of those stores had the now-illegal synthetic pot on their shelves, said spokeswoman Andrea Davis. All those stores voluntarily handed over more than 10,000 packets of the drug.
"We're constantly monitoring," Davis said.
The odd position in which law enforcement officials have been put was evident at a news conference at the Pinellas Sheriff's Office on Monday. Packages of leafy substances were displayed on a table, with names like Donkey Punch, Hammer Head, Jazz and Mr. Happy Potpourri.
It was a scene similar to many press events that accompany narcotics arrests, with this twist: Gualtieri acknowledged that in the absence of pending lab tests, he couldn't be sure exactly about the legality of the brands.
Like other law enforcement officials, he's hoping an appeal to decency might work where the letter of the law has failed. He said he's counting on outreach to small store owners — large chains tend not to carry the products —- to inspire "voluntary compliance with the spirit" of the state's ban.
"There isn't anyone in their right mind who thinks a 16-year-old kid is going to buy this for $6 a package and take it home and use it to make their room smell good," Gualtieri said.
The Pasco Sheriff's Office is using similar tactics. Last month, a program was launched encouraging stores to give up synthetic marijuana products in exchange for a sticker they can display stating the premises are free of the drug.
Arrayed against these initiatives is a powerful force: profit.
Nazih Tageddine owns two convenience stores in Indian Rocks Beach. He said he gave up selling legal designer drugs after briefly carrying them about a year ago. He said he had concerns about the drugs' danger to customers.
"I run a clean business," he said.
From a purely commercial standpoint, he admits, it wasn't the most logical move. Demand for the drugs is immense, he said; buy 100 packages and they'll sell out within a week.
"It's a great moneymaker," he said. "You pay $1 and can sell it for $10. That's why people don't stop selling it."
Authorities hope public awareness, and outrage, will be key to combating a profitable suite of drugs whose creators are too nimble for traditional methods of law enforcement. Designer drugs have wreaked havoc on many of their young users, their powerful high accompanied by vomiting, panic attacks and terrifying hallucinations.
High-profile tragedies involving synthetic pot — such as the January drowning of a Clearwater teen who police said had smoked Jazz — have started to turn public sentiment against designer drugs and those who sell them.
"It's become such an epidemic. You see so many kids adversely affected," said Feeney of the Hillsborough Sheriff's Office. "The community is not going to put up with this."
Staff writer Jodie Tillman contributed to this report. Peter Jamison can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4157.