TALLAHASSEE -- The face-eating attack on a homeless man in Miami last month has brought renewed attention to the state’s and law enforcement’s increasingly difficult efforts to stay one step ahead of an industry that is ready to profit from sales of legal but harmful synthetic drugs.
Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, who has worked to outlaw manmade narcotic “bath salts” since shortly after she took office, said she is ready to add more chemicals to the list of banned substances, including “Spice” and other synthetic drugs sold at gas stations and specialty shops. Her spokeswoman said Bondi is trying to “remain vigilant.”
But law enforcement officials, who are seeing a spike in uncharacteristically violent behavior associated with users of synthetic drugs, worry that with every banned chemical added to the list, manufacturers of the compounds concoct a new combination that gets around the ban.
They are calling for Bondi, state legislators and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to make it harder for manufacturers to circumvent existing bans and keep new variations of the dangerous drugs from store shelves. Currently, every new compound has to be identified before it is outlawed, and law enforcement officials say it’s time for a new system.
“We could have 10,000 different substances banned before long, as the chemists in China or wherever they are keep modifying them,” said Tommy Ford, a major in the Bay County Sheriff’s Office who first brought the bath salts issue to Bondi’s attention in 2011.
(Toxicology reports are not yet available to show whether Rudy Eugene, the MacArthur Causeway attacker shot dead by police May 26, used so-called bath salts or any other drugs, though some police officers have speculated that he may have been under their influence when he attacked Ronald Poppo, a 65-year-old homeless man who is still clinging to life.)
Ford said if new laws address the chemistry of compounds or the process in which they are created, that could make it harder for manufacturers to create new, legal substances.
Cynthia Lewis-Younger, medical director of the Florida Poison Information Center in Tampa, said manufacturers are finding ways to keep synthetic drugs on shelves by replacing banned compounds with ones that aren’t illegal.
“They try and get around the law,” she said.
Bath salts and other synthetic drugs are sold under non-threatening brand names like Ivory Wave, Vanilla Sky or Pixie Dust, often in packages marked “not for human consumption.” Side affects can include violent hallucinations, combativeness, physical altercations and suicide attempts.
The synthetic drug market also includes substances created to mimic the effects of marijuana, often in products labeled as incense. Last week, the family of a Pasco County teenager who was hospitalized after smoking Spice, a synthetic marijuana product, protested outside the gas station where he bought it.
Bay County began looking into “bath salts” last year and found shops were legally selling the substance that caused them so much concern.
Anticipating an influx of 100,000 spring breakers with a lot of cash and few inhibitions, Sheriff Frank McKeithen wrote a letter to Bondi asking for help.
“Everybody was starting to see the problem,” Ford said.
Days later, Bondi issued an emergency order temporarily outlawing the chemical compound in “bath salts.” In March 2011, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency placed an emergency ban on many synthetic drugs. In 2011 and 2012, Gov. Rick Scott signed legislation adding dozens of synthetic drug compounds to the state’s list of banned substances.
Similar efforts are going on nationwide, and the numbers show reports of incidents involving “bath salts” and synthetic marijuana are decreasing.
The American Association of Poison Control Centers reported 720 calls regarding human exposure to “bath salts” in 2011, compared to 295 in May 2012. Poison centers reported 494 calls regarding synthetic marijuana that month, down from 597 in May 2011.
Meanwhile, law enforcement agencies have raided businesses and prosecuted owners who stock illegal substances.
Monday, the DEA said that Joel Lester, owner of Nature and Health in Boca Raton, pleaded guilty to conspiring to possess with the intent to distribute synthetic marijuana. Lester faces up to 20 years in prison and up to a $1 million fine.
In Miami-Dade County, commissioners are considering a complete ban on the sale or purchase of any products that imitate marijuana. The hope is the law will keep all synthetic marijuana off shelves even if manufacturers develop new chemical configurations.
The city of Sweetwater banned the sale of synthetic marijuana last month, and the city of Sunrise is poised to enact a similar ban.
“Little kids were buying it,” said Sweetwater Police Chief Roberto Fulgueira. “We had to do something.”
Patricia Junquera, assistant professor of psychiatry and the medical director of the detoxification unit at the University of Miami, said that she has seen a large increase of problems with synthetic drugs in the emergency room at Jackson Memorial Hospital.
“We’re seeing this type of behavior more and more,” she said. “And with younger and younger patients.”
In Junquera’s opinion, the effects of synthetic marijuana are worse than those of real marijuana, even though the synthetic substance is legal. Patients come to her hallucinating, breaking things and screaming.
“They become psychotic,” she said. “Some of them have seizures or are paralyzed. That doesn’t happen with normal marijuana.”