St. Petersburg, Florida - St. Petersburg Police say dealers are targeting drug addicts in Williams Park, and the latest fad they're selling: synthetic drugs.
"It's like when crack cocaine came in; inexpensive to make and buy. It's become a drug of choice for people down on their luck," said the Assistant Police Chief.
In a bust called "Operation: POT-pourri," undercover and uniformed officers targeted businesses that had been selling the products, called among other things, Spice, K2, Eclipse or Blaze.
A day later police walked the park, letting everyone know it's illegal to buy and sell it.
That was news to some people, "Spice is illegal now?" one person asked. Police responded, "There is a city and state ordinance against it."
During a news conference, police explained this stuff is being sold everywhere, from gas stations to meat markets. Then those same buyers allegedly take the public bus to the park where they sell individual joints; it's cheaper for users that way.
We went to Frog Eyes Smoke shop, where the clerks were busted for allegedly selling the packets.
"We want to give you a chance to explain your side of the story... is there anything you want people to know about SPICE?" we asked.
"It's not good for you, that's for sure," was the response we got.
To the trusting eye, the packaging is deceptive. It's sold as "pot-pourri" like "potpourri." On the back you'll notice this claim: 100% LEGAL. But police say if you're caught with it, you could face a $500 fine or even jail.
"They list 'not for human consumption,' but that's exactly what's happening with the synthetic marijuana," said the Assistant Chief.
Twenty people were arrested in Tuesday's bust, and two businesses were fined:
- Frog Eyes Smoke Shop at 6040 4th Street N was fined $21,500
- Mario's Meat Market at 3701 5th Avenue N was fined $23,000
Police gave out these statistics on Wednesday:
- In the last six months of 2013, St. Pete PD averaged 39 arrests for synthetic drugs per month. So far this year, that number has risen to an average of 63 per month
- 91% of the arrests primarily occur in downtown St. Petersburg
- 55% of all arrests between May 2013 and June 2014 were in Williams Park
- Williams Park felony arrests a total of 329 in that time period.
Police say the synthetic drugs make money for the stores that sell the packets, and then buyers make big profit selling them as joints, particularly among the homeless and transient population.
Police say that these synthetic drugs are particularly dangerous, as they can cause aggressive behavior that can endanger officers. Symptoms include paranoia, anxiety, seizures, heart palpitations, psychosis, strokes and kidney failure.
The drug makers constantly alter the chemical ingredients, making prosecution difficult.