Lake County commissioners are moving forward with plans to ban the sale of synthetic marijuana countywide.
Commissioners this week agreed to advertise an ordinance banning the drug, which health experts and the Lake County Sheriff’s Office say has an adverse effect on children.
Commonly marketed as potpourri, incense or bath salts, and packaged in colorful cellophane wrappers with brand names like Mr. Happy, synthetic marijuana is frequently sold in convenience stores and smoke shops. Health experts say the substances can cause psychotic episodes in those that smoke them.
Bath salts, meanwhile, are often sold as over-the-counter products used for bathing, but can be swallowed, snorted, smoked or injected to obtain a euphoric effect.
Commissioner Sean Parks pushed for the ordinance after hearing about a child who went into cardiac arrest from taking the drug.
“The chemicals we are discussing today pose a big danger to our residents,” he said. “They are poisons that are being marketed to our kids. As the father of three young kids, it scares me. I think this will give the sheriff’s department a tool to help tackle this issue.”
The drugs are sold as “incense,” with exotic names like K2, Black Mamba and Spice. Other brands names appear to target children, like Scooby Snacks, Mad Hatter and Joker.
The products are made from crushed leaves or garden trash and then sprayed with power ful concentrated laboratory-synthesized chemicals that resemble THC, the active mind-altering ingredient in marijuana, according to Dr. Morton Levitt, senior associate dean for faculty affairs and professor of clinical biomedical science at Florida Atlantic University.
In 2013, Florida outlawed more than 140 chemicals used in synthetic marijuana. Levitt said manufacturers have found ways around the ban by altering the chemical formulations minimally.
“The problem is they keep continuously changing the nomenclature of the chemical,” said Cpl. Tom Willis with the narcotics unit of the Lake County Sheriff’s Office. “Once the Florida Department of Law Enforcement gets it on the list for illegal substances, the chemists change the chemical.”
Willis said there is a six-month gap between when law enforcement identifies the new s ubstance and when it is put on the list of banned substances.
Children are using the drug more than adults, Willis said.
“The majority of our complaints are in reference to parents calling about the stuff,” he said.
Sheriff Gary Borders also appeared before the commission in support of the ordinance.
Clinicians treating adolescents at Lifestream, a behavioral health and social services organization that provides inpatient and outpatient treatment, reported they had 123 clients over the past year who used synthetic marijuana.
The problem is “enormous” among adolescents, the clinicians — who could not be identified because of confidentiality issues — wrote in an email to the Daily Commercial .
“Society is not as harsh as it used to be,” said Lori Shallcross, child clinical services director at Lifestream, referring to attitudes toward marijuana use in general. “Therefore, youth view it as not too bad or no worse than alcohol.”
Clinicians reported to Shallcross that the drug could have an effect on the brain.
“It is well documented to be ‘risky’ in that is hard to judge how much is too much, and what gets a teen high on one day might lead that child to the brink of death on the next day,” the clinician wrote.
Debi MacIntyre, executive director of the Safe Climate Coalition of Lake County, a community coalition that focuses on youth substance abuse and violence prevention, said the use of synthetic marijuana causes psychological and physical side effects.
“With K2 or Spice you have everything from extreme nervousness to hallucinations and seizures,” she told commissioners. “Bath salts are more extreme, causing paranoia, psychosis and violent behavior.”
Adolescents’ interest in drugs is starting at a young age with reports of children in an elementary school crushing up Smarties candies and trying to snort them to replicate drug behavior, MacIntyre said.
“People are having psychotic breaks and going into a deep psychosis they are not coming out of,” she said.
A recent 2012 Florida Youth Substance Abuse Survey of ninth to 12th graders in Lake and Sumter counties found that 5.8 percent of Lake and 4.2 percent of Sumter students reported synthetic marijuana use in the past 30 days.
In the first six months of 2012 there were 375 calls per month of people becoming ill on Spice, according to the Florida Poison Information Center.
Those calls are trending upward, according to county officials.
Hillsborough, Broward, Miami-Dade, Hernando and Pasco counties have instituted similar ordinances, and officials claim these laws have been effective in deterring the problem.
In Hillsborough County, the sale of the drug has almost been wiped out, according to Larry McKinnon, detective with the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office.
If the ordinance is adopted in the county, those who violate it will face a civil fine of $500 for the first offense and $1,000 for any repeat violation within five years of a previous offense, according to the ordinance.