Local News

Highlands County working to enforce bill outlawing synthetic drugs

— “K2,” “Spice”, “bath salts,” - just some of the synthetic drugs that until recently could be found being sold around Highlands County and Florida.

However, as of June 16, those and other synthetic “cannabinoids” — marijuana — and “cathinones” — synthetic hallucinogenic dopamine, are illegal for sale or use in Florida.

Since House Bill 697 was passed the House and Senate overwhelmingly during the spring legislative session, counties and municipalities statewide have been working to enforce the law.

Signed by Gov. Rick Scott, in Highlands County, the impact hasn’t been to drastic, due the law enforcement efforts already underway in curbing abuse of synthetic drugs, said Tim Lethbridge, Highlands County Sheriff’s Office captain of investigations. He said although he was glad the bill passed, the county was already monitoring abuse of sales and sales to minors.

The synthetic drugs are often sold as “bath salts” or “jewelry cleaner” and labeled “not for human consumption” to hide the intended purpose of getting the user “high” and avoid Food and Drug Administration regulations in the manufacturing process. They have been added to criminal drug laws under Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi.

Over the past five years, Florida has made several attempts to crackdown on synthetic drugs, made by mixing chemicals that produce highs like marijuana and cocaine. The bill to curb them passed the House and Senate by a large majority over the spring legislative session.

Since 2013, Lethbridge said sheriff’s deputies have been making stops at convenience stores, where most of the synthetic drugs are sold, educating owners about the potential dangers for those buying and abusing the drugs.

Now that the sale of synthetic drugs is officially banned, those caught selling them face second- and third-degree felony charges, said Lethbridge.

According to Florida Office of the Attorney General, dangerous synthetic drugs are marketed as “incense,” “potpourri,” “K2,” “spice,” and “bath salts.” The National Institute of Drug Abuse states when someone takes synthetic drugs they are affecting the part of the brain controlling “temperature control, food intake, perception, memory and problem solving.”

These drugs are sold under names such as “Scooby Snax,” “Half-Baked Hulk,” and “Purple Flake.”

Although the bill has been passed, the problem won’t disappear anytime soon, if ever, said Lethbridge. He said all it takes is a small modification in ingredients to take the drug technically off the banned list.

Lethbridge, who’s been with the sheriff’s office for 23 years, said one of the easiest ways agents and deputies find now-illicit synthetic drugs is price. He said when window cleaner, used as an ingredient, is being sold for $15 a bottle investigators know it’s too expensive for legitimate use,

Often, Lethbridge said younger people who buy synthetic drugs are under the impression that because they are packaged and labeled, they’re safe to use.

“It’s certainly being checked into to put the brakes on and eliminate them (synthetics) because they’re, in my opinion, far more dangerous than even marijuana,” he said.

According to the Drug Abuse Warning Network report, over 11,000 emergency room visits nationwide involved a synthetic cannabinoid product in 2010 and 75 percent of the patients who were from 12 to 29 years old, with the majority 12 and 17 years old.

The problem of synthetic drug abuse in Highlands County should be waning since the bill’s passage, said Nell Hays, Highlands County Sheriff’s Office public information officer. She said, however, statistics on the sell and use of synthetic drugs aren’t being exclusively kept.

“I know I’m not getting as many complaints about them as I did two years ago. I think the merchants have stepped up to the point of doing a better job of not selling products that are going to hurt our kids,” she said.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement warns users of synthetic drugs of a host of adverse side effects including agitation, headaches, dangerous hallucinations, vomiting, seizures, elevated blood pressure, severe paranoia, aggression and loss of consciousness

The American Association of Poison Control Centers reported in 2012, Florida poison control centers received 5,202 calls involving exposures to illicit synthetic substances, compared to 2,906 calls in 2010.

“Thanks to the hard work of our superior law enforcement officers and prosecutors, Florida is at a 43 year crime low, but we must keep working to ensure our children are protected from these dangerous substances,” Scott said in a written statement.

As he stocked cigarettes Tuesday in the Citgo Express Mart, 3650 U.S. 27, store manager Aziz Ali said in the six months he’s worked at the store, synthetic drugs haven’t been sold there. He said he thought the law was good and besides the drugs possibly being dangerous, they’re bad for business in the customers they attract.

“We don’t want the type of people who buy those here. It’s good the bill has passed and I think it’s a great state law to have,” he said.


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