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Monday, Jul 21, 2014
Editorials

Editorial: Synthetic pot ordinance an effective tool

Published:

A county ordinance passed to curb the insidious spread of synthetic pot is proving to be an effective tool.

Money talks, and the threat of hefty fines is getting the attention of business owners who allow the sale of substances that contain dangerous chemicals and can cause debilitating side effects. In Hillsborough County, a $1.25 million fine resulting from violations at a Seffner convenience store is now headed toward a settlement that guarantees the synthetic drugs won’t be sold at that store and two others.

That was the goal behind passing the ordinance, and although the fine is expected to be reduced as part of the settlement, that’s an acceptable trade-off for getting the store’s owner to stop the sales. As for the county, it’s expected to tweak its ordinance to better comply with legal issues raised by the case.

Synthetic pot products are herbal mixtures marketed as safe but that contain dangerous chemical additives that give a high similar to marijuana. But the high can induce symptoms that include rapid heart rate, vomiting, anxiety, confusion and hallucination.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse says synthetic pot products are popular with teenagers. Among the illicit drugs most used by high-school seniors, synthetic pot is behind only marijuana.

Those are powerful reasons for law enforcement and local governments to target the possession and sale of these products.

The Drug Enforcement Administration has designated the active chemicals most commonly found in the products as controlled substances, making it illegal to sell, buy or possess the products. But criminal prosecutions can be difficult because the manufacturers alter the chemical additives enough to make them legal while still producing a product that gives a potent and dangerous high. And the criminal penalties aren’t necessarily tough enough to deter its manufacture and sale.

The local code enforcement ordinances, though, are getting the desired results.

Ordinances in Hillsborough and Pasco make it illegal for store owners to sell synthetic pot over the counter. Violations are met with $500 fines for each packet sold or possessed. The possibility of selling a product that might bring a fine is causing stores to think twice before offering synthetic pot, either behind the counter in plain view or away from the counter and out of sight.

In the Hillsborough case with the $1.25 million fine, the store owner and the owner of the property where the store is located were hit with penalties after undercover officers purchased 2,500 packets over roughly five months. The county also levied fines of $1,000 a day while the case was appealed.

The store owner’s attorney, Luke Lirot, raised legal issues with the ordinance and questioned the amount of the fines. We have no sympathy for store owners who would sell these dangerous products to kids, but the county is being prudent in considering fine structure revisions and other changes to better withstand future legal challenges. It has already exempted property owners after the Seffner owner said he wasn’t aware of the sales at the store on his property, and filed a lawsuit. A similar claim by the store owner, however, doesn’t have the same validity. A store owner should be accountable for everything being sold inside the store.

In just a few short years, law enforcement and local governments have helped curtail a destructive activity by drug pushers using loopholes to openly ply their trade. Although not perfect, the local ordinances are getting the products out of the stores and eliminating a distribution point that gave our children easy access.

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