The clandestine purchases required a customer code word and a store owner willing to stock synthetic marijuana under the counter and out of the sight of police and code enforcement officers. It didn't work. This week's enforcement of a Hillsborough County ordinance banning the sales of the contraband known commonly as Spice, K2 and bath salts produced civil citations that could total $1 million in fines to 10 retailers. County officials in Hillsborough and elsewhere should stay on this issue and signal to retailers they will no longer look the other way.
The volume of sales — the potential fines amount to $500 per package — and the efforts store owners will take to circumvent the six-month-old Hillsborough ordinance validate the continued diligence from law enforcement focusing on synthetic marijuana. The product, marketed as incense or plant food, is used particularly among teenagers and young adults as a narcotic. Side effects have included violent hallucinations, combativeness and suicide attempts, and at least 20 people statewide died of synthetic marijuana overdoses, according to 2011 data.
Hillsborough County isn't alone in this battle. Attorney General Pam Bondi issued an emergency order in December, banning 22 additional variations of the products and requiring retailers to remove the packages from their shelves. In May, a Pasco County judge fined the owner of a Holiday mini mart $23,500 after finding him guilty of 47 counts of violating that county's synthetic drug ordinance that targets the product's packaging rather than chemical contents. Beginning in 2012, Hernando County deputies visited more than 100 retailers, warning employees and store owners about the state laws banning Spice and K2. Officers later followed up with undercover purchases and the arrests of five people in the past two months. The cities of St. Petersburg, Tampa and Pinellas Park have passed ordinances, and last month Clearwater police confiscated more than 18,000 packets of the contraband from a single store.
The crackdown has pushed the sales underground and driven up the price (as much as $50 for a 14-gram packet), both indicators that easy availability is waning. Keeping young people safe by pursuing the adults peddling dangerous synthetic compounds is a worthwhile effort that needs to continue.