Florida's fight against fake marijuana and fake cocaine is heating up. Yet as police try to put the drug makers and sellers behind bars, most are slipping through their fingers, skirting state and federal bans of their products and still raking in the money.
Earlier this year, alarming reports of overdoses from the products led the federal Drug Enforcement Administration and Florida legislators to outlaw a long list of chemicals found in fake weed and fake cocaine.
But drug manufacturers are one step ahead of police, changing the chemical compounds just enough to beat the bans.
"It's a frustrating road," said Special Agent David Gross, of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. "These are not traditional drugs…these are chemical substances."
Trying to keep up with these manufacturers, Gross is working with state authorities to amend the laws to include more banned chemicals and subtle variations of them.
Still, there have been few arrests around the country, and packets of synthetic marijuana, sold as herbal incense, and fake cocaine, sold as bath salts, keep turning up in stores and keep sending people to South Florida emergency rooms, authorities said.
Between January and October, 149 overdoses in Florida were linked to illicit bath salts, including three deaths, the Florida Poison Information Center in Miami said. Another 374 overdoses, including two deaths, were linked to fake marijuana.
Last week, the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office made the area's first arrests, hauling in a smoke shop owner and clerk for selling faux weed in suburban West Palm Beach, they said.
The undercover sting was in response to repeated calls from parents complaining about kids getting ill from smoking fake weed, Sheriff's Office Lt. Dennis St.Cyr said.
Monica Lee, 37, owner of the Hidden Treasures store on Purdy Lane, and her employee Hope Shipley, 27, face charges of selling controlled substances.
A month earlier, in September, Jacksonville police busted two convenience-store owners, seizing $1 million-worth of synthetic marijuana and arresting them on drug-trafficking charges.
With manufacturers now upping the stakes, it's tricky to make these kinds of arrests, St.Cyr said.
No one can tell if a package of "K2" or "Spice," for example, is legal without first testing it, he said, and police don't yet have test kits to detect the new chemical formulas on the spot. However, a new field-test kit likely will go on the market in January, he said.
These new drugs instead are sent to the Sheriff's Office chemistry lab, which takes longer and costs more to analyze the product. Even those test results aren't hard evidence for an arrest.
"We've actually tested a lot of things that turned out to be legal or in a gray area," St.Cyr said.
"There's hundreds of variations of Mr. Nice Guy alone," he said, referring to a popular brand of synthetic marijuana that he says is often altered to skirt the laws.
In Palm Beach County, the Sheriff's Office has since warned store owners that deputies will continue their crackdown on illegal sales of fake pot. Detectives also are investigating bath salts sales in the area, but St.Cyr declined to comment on the open cases.
Broward County has made no fake-marijuana arrests since the state ban went into effect in June, but prosecutors are handling about a dozen cases involving bath salts, the Broward State Attorney's Office said. Many of those cases came from the Broward Sheriff's Office, but specifics were unavailable.
DEA agents have not made any arrests in Florida for either product, the agency said.
Boca Raton lawyer Thomas Wright III said he represents about a dozen manufacturers of the herbal incense, in South Florida and across the country. The money they make is too good to give up after the bans, as they earn thousands of dollars each month from a few batches made in their bathtubs, he said.
"They are making tons of money and they don't want to go to jail," Wright said.
That's why most of his clients are now ordering new chemical formulas from places like China that are not yet banned in their states. Wright helps them get the chemicals tested so they can assure store owners that what they're buying is legal.
"The difference between what is legal and what is illegal is almost indiscernible," Wright said. "That's when it gets a little bit scary."
Staff researcher Barbara Hijek contributed to this report.
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