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Trafficking charge needed in battle against synthetic drugs, police say

Law enforcement officials in Tampa Bay have noted a slump in synthetic drug sales but say they are missing one component to continue battling the deadly narcotic: a trafficking statute.

Under Florida law, dealers can be charged with sale and delivery of those drugs, such as synthetic marijuana and bath salts. Synthetic drugs contain substances that mimic other narcotics and can elicit severe side effects, including aggression and seizures. But regardless of the amount traffickers possess, they face a maximum of five years in prison.

"Whether you have 1,000 pounds of it, or you have one bag … it's basically the same charge, and that is the biggest way the Legislature is behind," said Pinellas Park narcotics Detective Christopher Ryan. "These guys will get probation and will still be selling."

In February, Sen. Wilton Simpson filed a bill that would create a trafficking charge with heftier penalties, such as a minimum 15-year prison sentence and a $200,000 fine for selling 1,000 grams, equal to 35 ounces. There's also a companion bill sponsored by Rep. Danny Burgess, representing east and central Pasco.

"This is one more of the tools that law enforcement needs to get rid of the dealers," Simpson said, "by putting penalties in place."

Simpson, a Republican representing Pasco, Hernando, and Sumter counties, said he proposed the bill after conversations with Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco.

"It's critical for us," Nocco said. "The current law is not deterring (dealers) as much as our county ordinance. I believe our county ordinance is a much greater deterrent than our state law."

The state Legislature has outlawed more than 100 chemicals detected in the designer drugs, known as spice, synthetic marijuana, or bath salts, but manufacturers stay ahead by changing the chemistry of the products. Several cities and counties have passed their own bans that fine anyone in possession of synthetics, regardless of the drugs' chemical makeup.

Nocco said synthetic drug sales have decreased in Pasco County. In St. Petersburg, officers are encountering less of it after the Police Department last year seized packets from two stores and arrested about 20 people in Williams Park, previously a hot spot for users.

But some agencies say sales have migrated from convenience stores to the streets.

"I don't think it's declined in the underworld market of drug dealing in any sense," said Pinellas sheriff's narcotics Capt. Mark Baughman. "It's not as open as it used to be."

Some investigators suspect that convenience store owners continue to receive the products and either sell them in-store to regular clientele or hire dealers to push the drugs outside.

The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office has also seen a decrease in spice use, but detective work has become more challenging. If undercover investigators are not known at a store or don't have a referral from another customer, they are typically turned away, said agency spokeswoman Debbie Carter.

Synthetic drugs were also previously sold in colorful packets with names such as "Scooby Snax" and "Mr. Nice Guy," a ploy police say distributors used to entice children and young adults. Now, Clearwater police said detectives have discovered some dealers selling the drugs in zip-top plastic bags at about $20 apiece.

Despite the current challenges for police, officials at some medical facilities have noted a decline in synthetic drug use among patients.

Dr. Lawrence Wilson, associate medical director for the Tampa-based Drug Abuse Comprehensive Coordinating Office, said some patients used to sneak spice into the men's residential bathrooms.

"We still see it from time to time, but not as often," Wilson said. "It's not as bad as it used to be."

At BayCare Behavioral Health, executive director Doug Leonardo said there's been a drop in the number of admissions of patients exhibiting symptoms related to synthetic drug use, including sweating, heart palpitations, hallucinations, and high levels of aggression.

Most of the patients are teenagers or young adults in their 20s.

"The really unfortunate thing about synthetic drugs is that you don't know what's in it," Leonardo said. "We just don't know today what it's going to do to this young person tomorrow."

Contact Laura C. Morel at lmorel@tampabay.com or follow @lauracmorel.

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