TAMPA — For years, police and politicians tried to stop synthetic drugs by criminalizing them. When that tactic met with minimal success — manufacturers would simply tweak the formula to avoid banned chemicals — Hillsborough County moved to a new strategy: code enforcement.
County commissioners earlier this year passed an ordinance banning the sale of synthetic drugs, a move that meant violators would now be pursued in a civil setting instead of in criminal court.
The switch seems to be working. While some local convenience stores and specialty shops that once openly sold synthetic drugs are fighting the change in civil court and at code enforcement hearings, so far they're losing.
In some cases, they're losing big.
The code enforcement board last month handed one violator a stunning $1.25 million civil fine for selling packages marketed as Mr. Happi, Scooby Snax and Mind Trip.
The sizeable sanction — the largest ever handed out by local code enforcement in any case — came after board members levied the maximum penalty of $500 each on more than 2,500 contraband packages seized from the Citgo/Country Food Store at 12020 E. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. in Seffner.
Reached by telephone this week, business owner Tariq Hammad was critical of the government sanctions on his business and mentioned the federal shutdown.
The government should not hassle business owners, he said, and “go get busy with something else.”
Two other shops also were fined in the same code enforcement operation that snared Hammad. One was hit with a $2,500 fine for five packages of synthetic drugs and the other was given a $1,500 fine for three packages.
“It's just one of those things,” said Dexter Barge, director of the county's code enforcement board. “People will not make sense of it until something like this happens and then they will know that we are serious about enforcing this ordinance.”
Still, Barge notes, the alternatives to code enforcement punishment are worse than fines. Going to jail still is an option, though criminally prosecuting shop owners caught selling the substances has not been easy.
The makers of the synthetic drugs, also sold under such names as K2 and Spice, constantly alter the ingredients to skirt — or, manufacturers say, to comply with — the law. Officials say synthetic marijuana poses a serious health threat to those who ingest them and a safety threat to people around the users.
Defense attorneys say the county codes do not supercede state criminal law and have objected to the civil fines. Attorneys representing three of the five shops brought before the board on Sept. 20 went to circuit court to try to stop the code enforcement hearings, but a circuit judge ruled against them.
Attorney Scott Boardman, who represents multiple synthetic substance defendants, predicted the ordinance eventually will be thrown out. He said it conflicts with state statutes that already are set up to deal with the ever-changing ingredients in the synthetic drugs.
“It seems to be a recurring theme here,” he said. “The local county commissioners take it upon themselves to draft an ordinance for whatever reason when there's a state law that more than adequately addresses the perceived ill. The same issue is covered 100 times more thoroughly in the statutes.”
Boardman said the county code passed earlier this year was politically motivated, pushed by commissioners who need a social ill to gain popularity. Synthetic drugs this past year served that purpose, he said.
“I've been doing this 23 years,” Boardman said. “I've been around. I've seen a lot of battles come and go. If (local politicians) can do it, they will. It's political low-hanging fruit. They get a bigger bang for the buck.”
The attorney wouldn't say if his clients continue to sell the substances.
“I'd rather not speak to that,” he said.
Boardman said he will seek a declaration from a circuit court that the ordinance is unconstitutional.
“I'm all about due process,” he said. “This case is really dangerous because you might not like the subject matter — I'm not all for getting synthetic marijuana out into the stream of commerce — but it's all about due process and a forum where you get a fair shake, and that absolutely did not happen here.”
County officials say the ordinance is accomplishing its goal of making convenience stores and other businesses stop selling synthetic drugs.
“The goal here is not to get huge fines,” said County Attorney Chip Fletcher. “The goal is to get compliance with the ordinance. If businesses are complying, there is no need to seek further action against them.”
Commissioners passed the new rules in February. The ordinance bans stores from selling synthetic drugs; violators can be fined up to $500 per package, $1,000 on a second citation.
After the ordinance was passed, the county sent warning letters to 40 shop owners across unincorporated Hillsborough who were suspected of selling the contraband. The letters ordered them to get the products off the shelves. After the letters were sent out, undercover deputies went back to check.
In some cases, the illegal substances — which can fetch up to $50 a package — went from the shelves to under the counter and required a code word from the buyer to make the purchase, deputies said.
In August, 10 stores were issued violations.
Code enforcement operations manager Jim Blinck said there is no way to forgive the fines, short of getting the order thrown out by a circuit judge.
“The only way is to overturn this order through civil action,” he said. “There is no mechanism built into the ordinance to forgive the fine itself.”
He said the $1.25 million fine against Hammad is the largest ever imposed by the local code enforcement board.
The impact of the fines, “is not to punish anybody,” Blinck said. “That's not the intent. We hope the effect of this is that (store owners) will stop selling these banned products — to get these products out of the stores and shops.”