Synthetic marijuana plagues Southwest Florida

The bright-colored packages are decorated with rainbows and smiley faces, and come in flavors such as cotton candy. And they get you high. Synthetic marijuana can be found on the shelves in gas stations and convenience stores in Lee County, where it is sold as incense. It’s especially prevalent in Cape Coral, according to Cape Coral Police Department Sgt. Allan Kolak. “It’s out there a lot,” he said. “A lot more than people think.” Synthetic marijuana, also referred to as spice, is an umbrella term for a variety of designer compounds that produce effects similar to marijuana when smoked. Most of the compounds are legal in Florida. Cape Coral officers come into contact with the drug almost daily, Kolak said. He’s responded to medical calls for people having severe panic attacks after smoking synthetic marijuana. Other times, people try to fight him after smoking the drug. “People drive on the stuff and then kind of laugh at us,” Kolak said. “They have it in their hand and show it to us. It’s getting pretty out of hand, unfortunately.” There’s nothing police can do about it. Of the more than 400 chemicals that can be used to make synthetic marijuana, only a handful are illegal in Florida, Kolak said. Whenever new legislation makes additional chemicals illegal, manufacturers change the makeup of their product. To make an arrest, police have to confiscate the drug and send it to a lab to see if it contains one of the illegal chemicals, Fort Myers Police Department Sgt. Rick Notaro said. Because the drug doesn’t generate arrests, neither the Fort Myers nor Cape Coral Police Departments could provide statistics on how popular it is. Synthetic marijuana isn’t a huge problem in Fort Myers, Notaro said. “As of yet,” he said.

Widely available

At the Snack Shack Food Mart on Littleton Road in North Fort Myers, a display case holds about two dozen flavors and varieties of synthetic marijuana. The bags all warn the product is not for human consumption, but they are sold next to the glass pipes. Varieties include “Mr. Happy,” which depicts a smiley face against a rainbow background. “Hammer Head” is advertised by a skull. Prices range from $9.99-$24.99. Customers must be at least 18 to buy. The drug also can be purchased online from vendors such as “The soothing aroma of all (incense) is sure to elevate your mood and put a smile on your face,” the website states. “Don’t let our low price fool you, this is very potent, high-grade, herbal incense.” By placing an order, customers agree to a disclaimer that states the products are not to be ingested or smoked. The website warns smoking or ingesting the products may be harmful, and customers do so at their own risk. Christian Otero, manager of Mellow Mood Smoke Shop on Cleveland Avenue in Fort Myers, said synthetic marijuana was popular at his store until the owner stopped selling it about four months ago. The most recent legislation change made his store’s specific products illegal, and the owner didn’t restock with new, legal varieties. At least 20 people a day bought the drug, Otero said. While some customers who smoked it said the drug was a nice, legal alternative to marijuana, others got panicky and paranoid and said they wouldn’t do it again. “It’s a good alternative,” Otero said. “Other than the freaking out part.” Because synthetic marijuana is made of unregulated chemical compounds, it can be 10-100 times more potent than THC, the drug found in traditional marijuana, Kolak said. People taken to poison control centers after smoking synthetic marijuana reported rapid heart rates, vomiting, agitation, confusion and hallucinations, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse website. Nationally, a handful of deaths have reportedly been linked to the drug in recent years. About two weeks ago in Charlotte County, a 15-year-old boy reportedly shot three friends with a pellet gun after they refused to share his synthetic marijuana joint. The teen was arrested on three felony charges of aggravated battering using a deadly weapon.

Dangerous drug

Deborah Comella, of the Lee County Coalition for a Drug Free Southwest Florida, said drugs such as synthetic marijuana pose a threat. “I think what makes them dangerous is it’s very clearly marked not for human consumption and we don’t know what’s in them,” she said. “And any time you’re putting something in your body where you don’t know what it is, it’s not good.” Comella wants to take matters into her own hands. She wants to tag all convenience stores that don’t sell synthetic marijuana with a sticker advertising them as clean. Then she’ll start a campaign urging customers to give their business to clean stores. Comella is gathering volunteers for her campaign and hopes to start in the next month or so. Kolak said the drug became popular in Cape Coral six months to a year ago, and it shows no sign of falling out of fashion. “A lot of people just thought it was going to go away,” Kolak said. “It’s bad news and I think it’s going to be bad news for a long time.”

via : News-press

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