ST. PETERSBURG — Police are hoping the arrests of 20 people and massive fines levied on two retailers will send a clear message to anyone who may be inclined to buy, sell, distribute or smoke synthetic marijuana.
The St. Petersburg Police Department heralded the sting Wednesday, which they dubbed “Operation POT-pourri.” They said the busts on Tuesday were the culmination of months of effort, both undercover and in uniform, targeting those who use the drug and those who profit from it.
“The city of St. Petersburg has been seeing over several months the proliferation of incense and potpourri that's being used and abused by individuals,” Assistant Police Chief Luke Williams said.
Often sealed in cartoonish packaging and featuring names like Spice, K-2 or Glaze, fake pot has been the subject of recent nationwide scrutiny. State and local governments have tried to crack down on the substance. Law enforcement officials said Wednesday that dealers have been able to buy it in bulk from convenience stores near bus lines, divvy it up and sell it to homeless people — mostly in Williams Park downtown — for a dollar a joint.
“In this vein, with the advent of synthetic marijuana, the homeless population is being focused on moreso than the rest of our population,” Williams said. “It's the drug of choice for individuals who may be down on their luck or in bad situations.”
The big problem with these drugs, Williams said, is the slew of potential side effects, and each individual reacts differently. Changes in behavior, super strength, muscle hardening, suicidal tendencies, seizures and kidney failure are among possible side effects.
A man shot and killed by police near Williams Park in September after he chased pedestrians with an ax is said to have ingested the substance prior to his death.
By the city's ordinance, the fine for possession of each bag of the substance is $500.
Typically, dealers have been buying it at convenience stores. Two retail outlets that sold it were named Wednesday. One was Frog Eyes Smoke Shop, 6060 Fourth St. N., which was fined $21,500. The other was Mario's Meat Market, 3701 Fifth Ave. N., which was fined $23,000. Management for either store could not be reached for comment.
Individuals caught with smaller portions will be arrested, and likely will be encouraged to seek treatment at Safe Harbor, a homeless shelter and service center near the jail.
“We want to get help for the individuals on this,” Sgt. Randy Morton said. “Our goal is to offer the user a program to allow the user to get off this because this is not an easy drug to get off of.”
The Centers for Disease Control published a report Wednesday that praised Florida for cracking down on prescription painkiller use that was once epidemic in the state, but linked a decline in their use to the rise in the use of synthetic drugs.
St. Petersburg's ordinance targeting Spice and similar substances passed in 2013, and a list of chemicals that potentially can be used to manufacture it has been banned at the state level.
Since the city law went into effect, dozens have been arrested each month. During the second half of 2013, an average of 39 people each month were arrested for synthetic drugs. This year, that average shot up to 63 per month.
Between May 2013 and June this year, 329 felony arrests for synthetic marijuana — 55 percent of the citywide total — were made in Williams Park, a known gathering place for homeless drug users.
Law enforcement officials said youth access to such substances is becoming a major concern.
“The unfortunate part of it, too — what I hear from north Pinellas — is it's getting into the school system,” Morton said. “We've got to stop it now.”