About a month ago, Michael Jones rode his bike without lights to a McDonald's around 9:30 p.m. Pasco deputies pulled him over and discovered some synthetic drugs rolled up in a cigar package — one that's commonly used to roll fat marijuana cigarettes.
They gave him a citation based on a county ordinance passed in November, banning the use of products labeled as "potpourri," "synthetic marijuana," or "bath salts."
In a packed courtroom on a warm weekday morning, Jones, 20, with sleep still in his eyes, walked to the bench.
"Do you want to resolve this today?" County Judge Paul Firmani asked. He explained that Jones could ask for a hearing, or plead no contest or guilty and pay a fine. The fine would be $250 plus $13 in court costs. Another option, the judge said, was for Jones to show up at a drug court arraignment.
Judge Firmani paused. He mentioned how recently "spice" was pushed out of stores due to the ordinance, "but somehow kids are still picking it up on the street," he said. "They think of it as marijuana, but it's not.
"I view it as a wolf in sheep's clothing."
Jones stood with his arms by his sides and considered his options.
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Synthetic drugs showed up in the United States around 2008, according to the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. Marketed as sort of a safe alternative to illegal drugs, synthetics were sold in retail stores with bright packaging and names like "Scooby Snax" and "K2." The labeling of the product as, "not for human consumption" or "plant food," authorities say, hid the substance's true purpose, and helped skirt regulations by the FDA. Poison Control Centers statistics show use surged in 2010, with 2,906 calls related to use of the drugs. The next year, it doubled. In July 2012, President Barack Obama signed a bill banning several types of the synthetic substances.
In Pasco County, the drugs first showed up in emergency rooms.
"One of the first places we saw a push (of usage) was from the hospitals, seeing people come in and not being able to identify what they were on," said Chrissie Parris, spokesperson for the Pasco County Alliance For Substance Abuse Protection. "People not knowing how to come down or to come off of it."
County officials formed an unofficial coalition of agencies to fight the problem. The Pasco County Sheriff's Office, using legislative guidelines, initially went after the chemicals, even though manufacturers changed them rapidly in an obvious attempt to stay ahead of the law.
The new county ordinance changed everything. Instead of going after the chemicals, they would go after the packaging. County commissioners approved fining those caught with spice up to $500 per package. The Sheriff's Office warned stores and then raided ones that didn't comply, and Attorney General Pam Bondi traveled to Pasco to trumpet the crackdown. Just this month, a Foodland store at 3444 Grand Blvd. in Holiday was shuttered and fined $14,000.
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"It's not over. What we've done is, we've made it so hard for these businesses to sell that it's pushed it underground," Pasco Sheriff's Office Sgt. Bill Davis said. "Now they sell it to only … frequent (spice) customers, or they'll sell it out of their cars."
In effect, spice just joined the ranks of other drugs like pot and cocaine — drugs it originally tried to mimic. And word is out, Davis said, about the ordinance in Pasco.
"Deputies are making contact with people during traffic stops who have what is determined to be synthetic marijuana, but could be in aluminum foil or different packaging," he said. "They're trying to outsmart the police."
Davis said deputies now carry test kits for the drug, and have the option of giving a ticket for violation of the ordinance or arresting someone for possession.
One of the main worries of synthetics among the community, especially when they were so easily bought off a gas station counter, was the effects on kids.
Lt. James Law oversees Pasco school resource officers. He said the trouble with spice at first was the faulty idea that it was somehow a "safe" alternative. He thinks it's been showing up less in schools, mainly because now it's more difficult to get. When his officers find it, he said, sometimes students roll the spice up in the cellophane on cigarette packs and put it inside the box.
"I think spice is a passing fad," he said. What he's seeing instead are more students taking large amounts of over-the-counter medicines.
The best way to fight these behaviors, he said, starts at home. Communication between parents and kids is paramount, and too much privacy for your child, he said, is not always a good idea.
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Judge Firmani has seen firsthand just how unsafe spice is as an alternative to other drugs.
He remembers one young man who came to his courtroom and had to be restrained.
"The kid was so crazy they had to bind him," Firmani said. "He took the stuff once and it messed up his brain and he'll never be the same.
There are other stories too — the 17-year-old, Firmani said, who drowned in 15 inches of water; the high school spice user who, according to published reports, had a stroke and can now barely read and write.
As a county judge seeing many cases firsthand, Firmani is not convinced spice is on the way out. In the past week alone, he saw 11 cases related to the drug in a morning docket — the most he's ever had.
In all his years as a public servant, with all the tragedies he's seen, he said he sees his own children in the defendants who come through his courtroom. He wants people to know how dangerous these fake drugs are.
Much of the spice now, he said, is coming in from other counties or bought on the Internet.
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Inside Firmani's courtroom, defendant Michael Jones mulled over the judge's list of alternatives. Pay a fine? Seek a hearing?
"If you're still using," Firmani said. "Stop."
Jones pleaded guilty to the charge and set a date to pay the fine.
Standing outside the courtroom after the hearing, he said he bought the spice in Gainesville, in a smoke shop. Asked if Firmani's speech had an effect on him, Jones said it was "heartfelt."
Was he going to stop smoking spice? He shrugged.
"They're making a big deal out of nothing," he said. "I've smoked spice now for four years and I passed my GED and only missed six questions. Honestly, I don't care."