Hillsborough deputies call in EPA and OSHA after inspecting synthetic marijuana

Synthetic marijuana is packaged in bright colors, a tactic Sheriff’s Office spokesman Larry McKinnon says targets kids.
Synthetic marijuana is packaged in bright colors, a tactic Sheriff’s Office spokesman Larry McKinnon says targets kids.
Published April 5, 2012

TAMPA — An overwhelming chemical smell burned the eyes of inspectors Wednesday as they entered a warehouse to check on production of synthetic marijuana, the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office said.

The inspectors had come to take samples of the substance being processed at 6308 Benjamin Road, Suite 712, north of Tampa International Airport.

The sample would be sent to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to see if it contains any of the 29 compounds outlawed by the Legislature in its attempts to prevent the possession and sale of synthetic drugs.

But during the inspection, high levels of concentrated acetone caused investigators to call the state Fire Marshal, Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to evaluate the safety of the warehouse and its more than a dozen employees.

Specific combinations of chemicals make up the synthetic drugs that are banned in Florida. No arrests were made at the warehouse Wednesday while the case remains under investigation, said Larry McKinnon, a Sheriff's Office spokesman.

Deputies have been inspecting several local distribution centers, as well as local vendors, since Gov. Rick Scott signed the law on March 23 to expand the chemical compounds banned.

Unlike with other drugs, deputies can't perform on-site testing to determine if the compounds are illegal. And as the law changes to ban more chemical combinations, so do the manufacturer recipes to keep their businesses legal.

"There's a significant difference between synthetic marijuana and other over-the-counter substances people abuse," McKinnon said. "Gold paint and glue are not packaged to attract young people — not packaged with Spider-man, Scooby Doo and placed in the candy aisle where kids are buying chewing gum. They are confined to hardware stores and hobby shops."

McKinnon said young people don't heed warnings on labels that the substances shouldn't be ingested by humans, and end up in emergency rooms or morgues.

During Wednesday's inspection, deputies found about 500 to 600 pounds of the substance. They were packaged under names like Kush Pink and Mind Wave in brightly colored foil.

Large amounts of the unprocessed substances were being soaked in heavy amounts of chemicals, deputies said.

Business operators assured deputies that the formula complied with state law, and that they were making incense products.

McKinnon said the Sheriff's Office has reached out to businesses and several stores have stopped stocking the products.