Officials say synthetic marijuana use is becoming a growing scourge in Hillsborough County and elsewhere. On Wednesday, county commissioners took the first step toward banning the toxic drug.
Commissioners told the county attorney to draft an ordinance that would keep the drug off the shelves of local convenience stores. The commission action had the blessing of sheriff's office officials, who say overdoses, many by teenagers, are increasing, with 71 reported in Hillsborough so far this year.
"It's going to have staggering effect on our community resources collectively: on law enforcement, the medical profession and certainly rehabilitation," said Maj. Tom Feeney, commander of the sheriff's special investigative division.
The drug is openly marketed to teenagers in bright, colorful packages with names like K2, Spice and Mr. Smiley. It is usually made of tea leaves soaked in toxic chemicals, said Chris Brown, general counsel to the sheriff's office.
Though meant to mimic the high obtained from THC, the intoxicating chemical in marijuana, synthetic pot can also cause increased anxiety, nausea, vomiting, elevated blood pressure and hallucinations. And it can stay in the taker's system for 30 days.
In January, a Clearwater teen drowned in a creek after smoking synthetic marijuana.
But banning the drug could be tricky, Brown said. The Florida Legislature tried to do that last year with a law that enlarged the list of banned chemicals known to be used in the designer drugs. But manufacturers simply changed the ingredients to get around the law.
"So a slightly different molecular make-up will make what they're selling not illegal under the state statute," Brown said.
The challenge for the county attorney is to write language that doesn't contain a laundry list of illegal chemicals yet is not too vague. Brown said the sheriff's office, working with the county attorney, will look at ordinances passed in a handful of Florida counties and municipalities to see which ones look enforceable.
The sheriff's office tried to attack the problem in March by sending a letter to retailers known to carry the drug, asking them to quit. Brown said some store owners were receptive and took the drugs off the shelf; others ignored the sheriff's request.
"Obviously, dollars get in the way sometimes of these issues," he said.
In other business Wednesday: