The Gainesville City Commission has banned the use of synthetic drugs in the city.
The ordinance, which passed March 5, came as an amendment to Gainesville’s current Code of Ordinances, adding a section that clarifies what a synthetic drug is and providing penalties for possession, production and sale.
Each offense will be charged separately with a fine of $250.
The law’s history regarding synthetic drugs began three or four years ago, said Paul Doering, University of Florida professor emeritus in the department of pharmacotherapy and translational research.
Chemically, synthetic drugs were very similar to controlled substances, Doering said. However, there were no laws regarding the illegality of synthetic drugs that created such similar effects as the ones in the law books.
The difference had to do with identification, Doering said. A drug like marijuana contains a psychotropic, or mind-altering, ingredient called THC. The effects on the human body from THC are well known, and the federal government has labeled it as illegal and a Schedule I controlled substance.
“There are basically two types of these synthetic drugs,” Doering said. “One that has taken on the moniker of spice … (and) the other major group is what’s come to be called bath salts.”
Neither having to do with food in your cabinet or a bubble bath, he said they are just cute names for drugs that have the potential to cause a great deal of harm.
Synthetic marijuana, like spice, has been chemically altered in a laboratory. Doering described the process as similar to sheering hedges: the basic molecule is clipped in different places, possibly combining with a new atom or two, creating a new compound.
Taking the shears and chopping off pieces of a molecule actually make the molecules fit better in the site of the brain where they work to make the effect stronger.
The drugs can then cause “profound psychotic symptoms,” he said.
Doering said synthetic marijuana is more dangerous than the real thing.
Sometimes the compounds that are contained in the drugs can change, said Becky Butscher, spokeswoman for the Alachua County Sherriff’s Office.
She said from one usage to the next, a person can have an experience that is somewhat normal and then the next time can have a completely irrational and erratic reaction.
Because of users’ unpredictability, it poses a significant danger to law enforcement, Butscher said.
It also creates challenges for the government to make laws to ban these drugs. Yet, in 2011, Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi filed an emergency rule working to ban products like bath salts that contain Methylenedioxypyrovalerone, or MDPV.
President Obama signed the Synthetic Drug Abuse Prevention Act of 2012, making hallucinogenic substances and other items like bath salts illegal.
However, they have been nicknamed “designer drugs” because the compounds are constantly being changed to maintain legality, Doering said.
“They change it, such that if you look it up in the law books, it is not there as being an illegal drug,” he said. “It’s sort of, in a way, handcuffed law enforcement from taking action against those people who were selling these compounds quite openly.”
Law enforcement performs tests on each synthetic drug they pick up, looking for the compounds considered illegal. However, these tests are limited and can be expensive.
About 90 compounds have been identified as used in synthetic drugs, said Ben Tobias, spokesperson for the Gainesville Police Department. But the department only has the capability to identify six of them.
GPD and ACSO have experienced problems with synthetic drugs before.
The Gainesville-Alachua County Drug Task Force, a commission of both departments as well as the University of Florida Police Department, is a team built to combat drug violators, Butscher said.
“Most of the cases have come from our drug task force,” she said.
A year ago the task force raided Land B4 Time, a paraphernalia store, after more than 20 people displayed symptoms of seizures from using spice. A few years prior, officers found a man running down NW 6th St. naked.
Tobias said he hopes the new ordinance, especially the targeted labeling and marketing of these drugs, sometimes sold with misleading names and purposes, will aid in making laws more enforceable.
“The ordinance puts a blanket ban on all of these substances,” Doering said. “When the day is done, the risk of these things … especially not knowing what they are made of, or where they come from, or what the dosage is supposed to be, is a roll of the dice as to what the outcome is going to be.”
The ordinance will go into effect immediately, pending the commission’s release of the minutes.
The next step is figuring out what kinds of people use drugs like these, Doering said.