Can an incense product actually make people feel this bad? In Polk County, the sheriff says it can. (Photo by Michael Freeman).
KISSIMMEE — He shakes his head and admits that just being across a county line can make a big difference.
He runs a smoke shop, one that in addition to selling cigarettes also has pipes. Standing over the glass counter that contains the pipes for smoking tobacco products, he points to them.
“In Polk County, I couldn’t even sell the pipes,” he said. “It’s illegal in Polk County.”
He knows this, because although his shop is in neighboring Osceola County, he actually resides across the line.
“I live in Polk County,” he said. “I live on Highway 27.”
And he knows, courtesy of a friend and fellow small business owner, what happens when a convenience store owner markets products that county law enforcement officials don’t want on local shelves.
His smoke shop is on U.S. 192, a tourist highway lined with gift shops, hotels, restaurants, miniature golf courses and other attractions meant to get some of the disposable income that visitors bring here on the way to Walt Disney World or the other theme parks. U.S. 192 runs from Polk County in Four Corners, down past Celebration, downtown Kissimmee and then St. Cloud, before continuing on to Melbourne.
His shop is not in an area where the higher end hotels or restaurants are located. In no small irony, he’s closer to the Osceola County Jail than to the Four Corners shopping plazas.
But he has a friend who owns a store on U.S. 192 in Polk County, who made the mistake, he said, of adding smoke shop pipes and adult videos to his shelves.
“I have a friend on (U.S.) 192 in Polk County, in Four Corners,” he said. “He owns a liquor store. He was selling pipes and adult videos. He got arrested. His fine was, like, $30,000. Amazing.”
He has no intention of ending up in the same position. But right now, he’s not worried about it. Osceola County law enforcement has ignored him. He hopes it stays that way.
A major reason for the difference, in addition to those pipes, is the sale of “potpourri” products, or frgrant plant material marketed as an incense that people can burn in their homes for a unique aroma. He has some of these products in his smoke shop. If he had opened a store in Polk County, he wouldn’t have been able to do that.
The Polk County Sheriff’s Office has charged that these potpourri products are a actually a synthetic form of marijuana. In October 2010, Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd announced that he was cracking down on convenience stores that market these products, which once were sold under titles like Spice.
“We’ve given numerous warnings to businesses in Polk County not to sell these dangerous and illegal substances,” he said.
Judd has long claimed these so-called incense products are a cover for what is essentially a “fake pot” or imitation marijuana. Buyers use it to get high, Judd has warned, even though synthetic pot has been known to cause a variety of illnesses, including severe nausea, headaches and vomiting.
The Florida Poison Information Center has reported that between January and October, 374 overdoses, including two deaths, were linked to fake marijuana.
Because of the health risks these products pose, Judd said, his office would keep cracking store on stories in Polk County that sell it.
“We will continue to check stores and make sure they are complying with the law,” Judd said.
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 routinely sends undercover detectives into local convenience stores to be sure they’re complying.
But his jurisdiction stops at the Polk County line. So the smoke shop on U.S. 192 continues to sell potpourri, and the owner said it’s not even being done in violation of state law. Although Florida lawmakers have banned the chemical mixture that makes up products like Spice, the manufacturers simply change the chemical ingedients, and repackage it under a new name. With the new mix of ingredients, it no longer falls under the technical definition of what is prohibited by law.
“Who are you hurting” by buying the stuff, he asked outloud.
He also thinks Florida would be better off ending the fight against these potpourri products, and taxing it legally like they do alcohol and cigarettes, which can also be dangerous to people’s health.
“They should make it like California — pot is legal,” he said. “The state could make a lot of money off it.”

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