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K2 federal ban sparks buzz

Staff
Published:   |   Updated: July 12, 2013 at 01:55 AM
PINELLAS PARK -

By the end of the month, Randy Heine says he has to take a popular and profitable product off his store's shelves.

But it isn't Heine's choice to stop selling his stock of K2, marketed as incense but also known as synthetic marijuana. It's because of an impending ban by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration that designates the product an illegal narcotic on the same level as cocaine or heroin.

"The DEA is no better than the Gestapo," said Heine, 59, the owner of Rockin Cards & Gifts in Pinellas Park. "It shouldn't be banned. It should be controlled and regulated."

The action taken by the DEA is the latest effort by law enforcement agencies and lawmakers to outlaw the sale of dried herbs sprayed with chemicals that, when smoked, generates a buzz similar to marijuana.

"It's dangerous," DEA spokesman Rusty Payne said of the substance his agency is calling the latest craze in designer drugs. "In the last two years, we've seen all kinds of synthetics, but this is one that's really taking off."

The federal ban lasts at least a year, with an option to extend the prohibition by six more months. During that period, the DEA will collect more samples and conduct tests before deciding whether the five synthetic cannabinoids sprayed on the spices should be permanently illegal, Payne said.

At the Purple Haze tobacco shops in Pinellas, owner Leo Caldazilla said he has been expecting a government crackdown, so he has ordered smaller shipments of K2 during the past few months.

"I've reduced prices to sell it faster," Caldazilla said. "I think I'll definitely be able to get rid of it."

Heine said he expects to sell his remaining supply of K2 before the ban goes into effect Dec. 24. He has signs outside his shop advertising 1-gram spice samples for $7.95 and encouraging customers to "buy it now."

Thirteen states already have banned K2 and the chemicals, which mimic the effects of marijuana's active ingredient THC, sprayed on the dried herbs. Florida lawmakers will consider a bill when the next legislative session convenes in March to do the same here.

"We support these states and what they're doing," Payne said.

State Rep. Janet Adkins, R-Fernandina Beach, is co-authoring the bill to make K2 and similar products such as "Spice," "Smoke" and "Yucatan Fire" illegal in Florida. Adkins said the DEA's action sets an example for other states to follow.

"It underscores the need for legislation," Adkins said. "It provides validation that this is a problem, a growing problem, and it needs to be banned."

Tampa police spokeswoman Laura McElroy said even with the DEA's mandate, her agency doesn't have the authority to make arrests for the sale or distribution of K2, because there is no state law clearly defining the synthetic drug illegal.

Currently, officers can arrest people if "they are representing K2 as marijuana," McElroy said.

Law enforcement agencies typically use that third-degree felony charge - officially known as selling an imitation controlled substance - to arrest people who, for example, "sell baking soda but say it's cocaine," Pinellas County sheriff's Sgt. Tom Nestor said.

Polk County is the only county in Florida that doesn't tolerate the sale of "fake pot." Sheriff Grady Judd arrested 12 people last month under the imitation controlled substance statute for selling bags of K2 at tobacco shops or convenience stores.

Once the federal ruling goes into effect, the DEA will have the authority to seize bags of spice, make arrests or shut down shops, special agent David Melenkevitz said. Although local police won't be able to take action, Melenkevitz said he hopes his agency's ruling on K2 will encourage other states to outlaw the product.

As of last month, poison centers across the United States have received 2,304 calls about K2, according to the American Association of Poison Centers' national database.

Several state public health departments and law agencies have reported that K2 use induces agitation, vomiting, elevated blood pressure, seizures and "dependence . . . similar to syndromes observed in cannabis abuse," according to the emergency action filed by the DEA in the national register.

Heine said he doesn't believe K2 is harmful.

"It mellowed me out," he said.

At Heine's shop, the mixture of herbs and other plant matter are labeled as incense with a warning that it's "not for human consumption." He doesn't sell it to customers under 21 or to people who walk in and say they want to smoke the stuff.

Prices range from $7.95 for a gram to $280 for 28 grams. He even makes his own house blend. But he doesn't consider K2 anything close to marijuana.

"Whatever is on the label is what it is," Heine said.

rreyes@tampatrib.com

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