The Sarasota County Criminal Justice Commission (CJC) approved a proposal Monday to crack down on the distribution and marketing of designer drugs, such as bath salts and synthetic marijuana.
Although most state and local ordinances ban specific substances, the proposed Sarasota County ordinance will target the marketing and distribution of designer drugs — penalizing manufacturers for inaccurately labeling products and going after landlords who permit banned or improperly labeled substances to be sold in their stores.
“The idea is to destroy the marketplace,” said Patrick Duggan, general counsel for the Sarasota Sheriff's Office, who presented the ordinance to the CJC at Monday's meeting. “These drugs are a real problem in our community. We want to regulate the unregulated areas and tighten the loopholes sellers use to skirt the law.”
Violators of the proposed ordinance will be subject to both civil and criminal penalties, Duggan added.
Monday's proposed ordinance was the product of a Sept. 13 request from the CJC for county and Health and Human Services staff to draft a law that specifically targeted the manufacturing and distribution of designer drugs. The CJC unanimously approved the draft on Monday, which, after some slight modifications, will go before the Sarasota Board of County Commissioners for final approval.
Designer drugs are substances that produce pharmacological effects similar to illegal narcotics. Law enforcement experts warn that the risks of using designer drugs are often higher than with other drugs, such as marijuana, due to wide variations in purity and concentration.
One of the most prevalent designer drugs is synthetic marijuana, also known as “spice” or “K2.” Synthetic marijuana is produced by spraying chemicals on natural herbs or spices, which, when consumed, produce effects similar to marijuana. Synthetic marijuana is sold in convenience stores, tobacco shops, head shops and on the Internet.
According to state and Sarasota County data, 21.7% of Sarasota County high school students use synthetic marijuana, compared with 13% statewide.
National substance-abuse data indicate that children aged 12 to 17 are responsible for 44% of emergency-room visits caused by the designer drug.
“We do feel an urgency, in the interest of public safety, to move forward on this,” Sarasota County Sheriff Tom Knight said.
“We fully support this ordinance,” said Ed Brodsky, state attorney for the 12th Judicial Circuit. “This is a tremendous measure that will have a significant impact on our community.”
Existing state and local statutes currently ban many designer drugs. The bans, however, only apply to the specific chemical makeup of each drug.
The problem with banning specific compounds, Duggan said, is that it allows manufacturers to skirt the law by slightly modifying a compound's chemical structure, thereby exempting it from the narrow confines of the law.
“We want to tighten those loopholes,” Duggan said, referring to state and neighboring county ordinances related to designer drugs. “We tried to build on what others did well. We let them be the guinea pigs, which let us have the more refined product.”
Sarasota County Commissioner Christine Robinson represented the County Commission at Monday's CJC meeting. Robinson said she supported the ordinance, but pushed for modifying some of the law's wording to eliminate any “wiggle room” for offenders.
Knight, a member of the CJC board, also supported the proposed ordinance, citing eight spice-related crimes in Sarasota County the weekend prior to Monday's meeting, including a shooting and an aggravated child-abuse case.
“We're not looking for arrests; we want to make an environmental change,” Knight said. “Our intent is education and public safety.”
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