HAINES CITY – The names sound innocent enough – K2. Spice. Mysterious.
But there’s no mystery to the Polk County Sheriff’s Office about what these products, which used to be commonly sold at some local convenience stores, can do to the teenagers who buy it.
“It’s hurting our children,” said Lt. Garry James of the Polk County Sheriff’s Office. “Our kids are coming up high and overdosing and going to the emergency room. At the time, because it wasn’t a controlled substance, the hospitals couldn’t test on that like they could with marijuana and cocaine. Now they recognize the symptoms, and they went through a training process for it.”
Overdosing on an incense product? James said that’s because this is not incense at all, but a “fake pot” or form of synthetic marijuana. Sold by the gram in convenience stores and head shops throughout Florida, the products get marketed as incense, but buyers use it to get high. Synthetic pot has been known to cause a variety of illnesses, including severe nausea, headaches and vomiting.
Last October, Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd and Haines City Police Chief Richard Sloan held a press conference to announce they were cracking down on convenience stores throughout Polk County that market the product. The Polk County State Attorney’s office had agreed to press charges under a Florida statute prohibiting “imitation controlled substances.” It targets the sellers, distributors and manufacturers of products that “by express or implied representations, purport to act like” an illegal substance. The charge is a third-degree felony punishable by up to five years in prison, although the law doesn’t ban mere possession. Judd said only people found to be selling the product or giving it to someone else will be charged.
Since then, the product has become virtually impossible to find in a Polk County convenience store, said Sgt. Thomas Dixon with the sheriff’s office’s vice squad.
“People just don’t sell it here anymore in Polk County,” Dixon said. “We do get reports every now and then of people selling it, and we send our people in to take care of it.”
Captain Brian Rall of the Haines City Police Department said there are no stores in Haines City that offer it.
“We did all the checks and nobody in the city limits was selling any,” Rall said.
James said this was a highly successful anti-drug operation for one clear reason: the sheriff’s office put a spotlight on the products, then went on a countywide sweep to crack down on anyone selling it. That heightened public awareness of a product that had previously been sold quietly, under the radar.
“What we did originally is we held a press conference and the sheirff and Chief Sloan went to televison and the media and advised all store owners that we were enforcing Florida statutes,” James said. “We waited a few weeks for them to remove it. Then we had undercover ‘explorers’ that we had go in and attempt to purchase it in the stores. We hit every store in Polk County.”
They found none of the chain convenience stores selling the products, like Circle K. “It was all the independent owned stores,” James said.
Those caught selling it got arrested.
Since then, James said, it’s become virtually impossible to find the product anywhere in Polk County. It also helped, he said, that the sheriff’s office’s very public campaign against these products brought calls from neighboring counties looking to do the same thing within their territory.
“Absolutely,” he said. “Once we launched our investigation, other agencies called and they enforced it in their counties, and during that process and time, the DEA (Drug Enforcement Agency) was trying to implement a new law to ban it. When we hit the media, there were at least five counties that contacted us about this.”
The Florida statute used to prosecute K2 and Spice sellers, he said, makes it a felony to sell any product that immitates a controlled substance.
“Basically, it gets you high just like marijuana does, and in some cases it’s even better,” James said. “If you immitate a controlled substance — which is already controlled — it’s a felony. If you sell fake cocaine, that’s a felony. It doesn’t have to be a controlled substance to begin with.”
What has also helped in the fight against this product, James said, is that store owners are known for dropping a dime on any rival that tries to get away with selling it again.
“If a store would begin to sell it, it would just take us a few days before we got a call,” James said. “It’s a very lucrative business. If I tell you you can’t sell it, and one of your competitors is selling it, they’ll call us and let us know that. They basically police themselves. It’s logical. They make hundreds of thousands of dollars a year selling this, and it’s easy money.”
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