This product’s name, Loophole, describes one of the problems officials say surrounds synthetic drugs and the law.
Synthetic drugs in colorful packages fill the display case at a local privately owned convenience store. Officials are concerned that manufacturers are targeting the youth through packaging portraying cartoon characters such as Scooby Doo.
Synthetic drug packages include warning labels that state the products are not for human consumption. Retailers selling the product say they aren’t responsible for their customers’ misuse.
Local convenience stores are starting to get the message.
Law enforcement officials are reporting that some storeowners are doing the right thing by taking synthetic drug products off their shelves. Others are continuing to endanger the public by going underground.
Pinellas County Sheriff’s deputies began delivering notification letters July 2 to 190 convenience stores located in unincorporated areas as well as municipalities that contract PCSO’s services. The letters, signed by the sheriff, recommend that convenience store owners comply with a state law that bans the possession and sale of those chemicals found in synthetic marijuana – commonly known as Spice, K2, incense and loose-leaf incense.
Since the letters went out, sheriff’s deputies have seen a “significant change,” PSCO Narcotics Sgt. Dan Zsido, said Aug. 3.
“The products are no longer there, or at least you can’t see them,” he said. “Some are hiding them under the counter away from the scrutiny of the public and law enforcement.”
Zsido said he knows of at least one business continuing to sell the products out in the open and reports are coming in about the ones who are selling them from under the counter.
He said deputies are following up on the complaints and continuing their campaign to educate storeowners about the dangers from ingesting the products. Deputies also are informing storeowners of potential civil liabilities if someone buys a product from their store and gets sick or dies.
Zsido said the sheriff’s letter had been made available to other law enforcement jurisdictions, but he didn’t know if any had sent them out. Largo Police Department started delivering letters to convenience storeowners a couple of years ago.
Sgt. John Trebino, who is in charge of Largo police’s Special Operations Unit, said his department became aware of the problem two to three years ago.
“But we didn’t know much about it,” he said.
He admitted to being “accurately distracted” by the growing problem of prescription drug abuse and “other drug fronts,” including synthetic steroids and other drugs coming in from China.
“Then we started seeing stuff pop up, the cannabinoids, synthetic marijuana, bath salts,” he said.
Reports started coming in about the increasing number of people showing up in emergency rooms and people doing strange things after smoking herbal incense.
Trebino said the city of Largo began to respond as soon as the law allowed, starting soon after the federal government issued an emergency ban on the chemicals used to manufacture the products at that time.
“We started to take it seriously,” Trebino said. “We hand delivered letters to convenience stores that were selling it, informing them of the law.”
According to state law, possession of the chemicals on the ban list is a felony. Trebino said the letters were an attempt to educate storeowners about the dangers, especially to the youth. There are about 30 mom and pop convenience stores in Largo.
Trebino said the primary message was that the “city of Largo does not want you selling these drugs.” But there were no teeth for the law. In addition, chemists keep changing the formulations for the drugs to eliminate the banned chemicals.
“By the time I could go out and get a product to be tested, it would come back (from the lab) as uncontrolled (not on the ban list),” he said.
Working with the storeowners has been a challenge, Trebino said. Some don’t want to stop selling because of the amount of money involved. He said the markup on the product is 300 percent. He said some who wanted to stop were reluctant due to the loss of business.
Trebino said they complained that if they took the products off their shelves, their customers would go somewhere else to buy their bath salts or herbal incense, as well as their beer, cigarettes and other products.
Others refuse to stop selling it because they say it’s not their fault that people misuse the product. The packages have a warning label that plainly says the product is not for human consumption.
Largo PD’s Narcotics Squad and Pinellas County Department of Justice and Consumer Services reviewed 25 convenience and food stores March 12-20 and found violations of the county’s paraphernalia ordinance at 11 locations. The county’s ordinance prohibits the display of paraphernalia where anyone under the age of 18 can see it.
At the 11 Largo stores, the merchandise had been openly displayed and there was no age limitation. At most stores, officers found sales of incense, potpourri and other products linked to synthetic drugs.
Zsido also said he had observed storeowners selling to underage customers. He said some stores had the products out in the open right next to the cigarettes.
“They’re not restricting to adults,” he said. “I talk to moms and dads who are so frustrated and upset that the stores are allowed to sell to their children.”
He talked about the mother of a 15-year-old addict, who had taken her daughter’s photo to the convenience store where she was buying her products. She told the clerk she didn’t want them to sell to her daughter. Zsido said store employees told her they couldn’t do anything about it.
“We’re trying to appeal to their ethical side to do the right thing,” Zsido said.
Distributors show storeowners lab reports allegedly proving the products contain no banned chemicals. But they don’t show them the chemicals used to make the products, he said.
While efforts are working to get the drugs off the shelves, Trebino is concerned that the actions are “driving it underground. There’s a huge profit,” he said.
The state of Florida enacted a new law in March, expanding the ban on synthetic drugs and placing more than 90 chemicals contained in bath salts and synthetic marijuana on the list of Schedule I drugs, making possession, sale and/or distribution a felony charge.
He said officers told storeowners that there was a new list of chemicals and their distributors hadn’t had time to change the formula, meaning the merchandise on their shelves was most likely illegal. He said they offered storeowners a chance to give products up voluntarily and collected about $6,000 in merchandise. Certain stores did continue to sell the product.
“Two weeks later, all the drugs we bought come back from testing as uncontrolled,” he said. “Chemists are on standby in China ready to change the formula. That scares me. There’s no testing. They just make sure it’s not illegal.”
He said the more the formulas change, the more the unknown factor goes up.
In some ways, synthetic drugs are like prescription drugs in that the people who take them think they’re safe. Prescription drugs are made in a pharmacy, so they must be safe. Bath salts and incense comes in cool, professionally made packages with names like Scooby Snax and Betty Boop, so they must be OK too.
But the product names often are slang words used for illegal drugs and some packaging mimics the way drugs are sold, Trebino said. For example, Scooby snacks is slang for the residue left at the bottom of a marijuana pipe. Incense isn’t sold on a stick; it comes in little baggies, like drugs. The product is measured in grams.
“They’re selling incense right next to the pipes,” Trebino said.
But they justify selling it because of the warning on the label.
“One guy had his speech down when we talked to him,” Trebino said. “He kept saying not for human consumption, not for human consumption.”
Paul Melton, an investigator for Pinellas County’s Justice and Consumer Services Department, said storeowners needed to decide whether they want “to make a contribution to their community and the public health or put their own economy first.”
He agreed that too many storeowners point to the warning label as their justification for selling the products, saying ‘we don’t sell them to smoke.’
“But these products don’t come in on the regular supply truck,” Melton said. “They come from suppliers with merchandise in the back of their car. They pay in cash. There may or may not be a receipt.”
Melton said privately owned convenience stores aren’t the only places where synthetic drugs are sold. They’re also available on the Internet, the streets, discount tobacco outlets, pawnshops and truck stops.
Right now, Largo PD is focused on getting the product out of the stores. Trebino said he thinks a new ordinance on substances of significant concern currently being considered by Pinellas County Commissioners is a step in the right direction.
Zsido said the PSCO would continue to be proactive and keep pressure on the stores to stop selling synthetic drugs.
He talked about the big-picture effects of the drugs over time. He said while storeowners, distributors and manufacturers continued to profit from the product, cost for health care would keep going up. Ultimately, taxpayers will foot the bill for the care of victims of these drugs, Zsido said. In addition, law enforcement will have to deal with increased activity as people commit crimes to get the products or commit crimes due to losing control after taking the drugs.
Zsido said the situation “is sad. It really is. I deal with a lot of kids whose parents call because their child is addicted but they don’t want them to go to jail or die.”
He said that oftentimes jail is the lesser of the two evils, especially for someone who won’t voluntarily seek help. He said jail gives a person access to drug court where they’re mandated to get help.
“This is dangerous, and they’re making money,” he said. “It’s not right. When we talk to storeowners, we ask if they have kids. We ask them if they’d like their kids to buy (the products), and they say, ‘absolutely not.’ ”
He said some parents want to organize peaceful protests in front of stores selling the product, which is something he does not recommend.
Zsido said so far, the Sheriff’s Office had not made many arrests, mostly because the manufacturers manage to stay one-step ahead of them. Local law enforcement is working with the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, who is focused on stopping the manufacturing process and distribution. Local law enforcement is tasked with getting the products off the shelves of convenience stores and other places where they’re being sold.
Zsido’s looking forward to the new county ordinance, which he estimates could become effective in October if approved.
“Right now, they’re (storeowners) still selling, they’re just hiding it under the counter,” Zsido said. “The ordinance could help.”
Trebino pointed out that some storeowners are on the right side.
“Some storeowners took the high road and they never sold or they stopped,” Trebino said. “Taking the product off the shelves is a morale decision; to give up the 300 percent profit is the right thing.”
Editor’s note: This is the second segment in a series of stories on synthetic drug abuse.