TALLAHASSEE -- Florida lawmakers have opened a new battle in the drug war, and they’re saying no more Mr. Nice Guy.
And no more K2 or Spice, for that matter.
Those are all brand names of so-called “fake pot’’ or synthetic marijuana, which a Senate committee unanimously voted Tuesday to make as illegal as the real thing.
Sold by the gram in brightly colored packages in convenience stores and head shops throughout Florida, the products are often marketed as incense. But buyers use the skunky-smelling stuff to get high -- leading to thousands of frantic calls to poison-control hotlines and even trips to the emergency room. Synthetic pot can cause vertigo, severe nausea, headaches and vomiting.
The anecdotes of hospitalized teens and crafty legal drug peddlers have proven irresistible to the news media as well as tough-on-crime lawmakers throughout the nation. At least 16 states now regulate or outlaw some strains of fake pot, which the Drug
Enforcement Administration has tried to ban.
On Tuesday, a handful of North Florida sheriffs and their investigators urged the Senate Criminal Justice Committee to outlaw fake pot because, they say, federal authorities won’t prosecute small distributors of the substances.
“What’s at stake here is the health and welfare of our children,” Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd testified Tuesday, echoing other law enforcement officers who said kids are being targeted.
Judd said he was concerned that the bill only listed specific chemical compounds that mimic the most active drug in marijuana -- THC -- and not any future compounds that chemists could cook up to make different strains of fake pot. Other officers testified that fake cocaine and fake methamphetamine, which are marketed as bath salts, weren’t targeted.
Sen. Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, wondered about banning blunts -- a type of cigar ‘‘used to roll blunts of marijuana. They have no other purpose.”
Bill sponsor Steve Wise, R-Jacksonville, said he’d be amenable to making the bill tougher. He said he hadn’t heard of K2 until it was mentioned to him by a reporter.
“I thought it was some type of jelly or something,” he said, eliciting chuckles from those in the audience who thought he confused it with KY Jelly lubricant.
Wise’s bill has an identical House companion, and has a good chance of passing the Florida Legislature, which banned another psychoactive plant, Salvia divinorum, amid a 2008 drug scare.
Echoing the same arguments from two years ago, the law-enforcement officers Tuesday testified that the sale of fake pot is on the rise and is hurting kids the most. But poison-control statistics tell a different story.
Calls to poison control lines in Florida appear to have decreased since peaking in November, as the DEA prepared to ban the substances. Last year, Florida poison-control offices fielded 236 fake pot-related calls. So far this year in Florida, only 15 poison-control calls have been made.
Nationwide last year, poison-control centers fielded 2,866 calls. So far this year, 132 calls have been made nationwide.
Poison control centers in Florida and the nation fielded far fewer calls in 2009, when fake pot first hit the mass market. The spike in calls in 2010 was largely due to the “marketing effect” of news media stories, said Wendy Stephan, health education coordinator with the Florida Poison Information Center - Miami.
Stephan said cracking down on the synthetic compounds is as tough as playing ‘‘whack-a-mole.” Soon after the DEA announced its ban, manufacturers started advertising fake-pot products called “Barely Legal” and “420 Incense.”
Marc G. Kurzman, a Minnesota lawyer representing shop owners suing to stop the DEA ban, said the product’s dangers have been overhyped. He said he found an irony in conservative lawmakers who want to use regulations to stop businessmen from making money.
What’s more, he suggested the battle over the product was an inevitable result of the drug war. “I’ve found that in states where marijuana is more readily available, they don’t have all these problems,” Kurzman said.
Two of the synthetic marijuana chemicals -- JWH-018 and JWH-073 -- were developed by Clemson University chemistry professor John Huffman, who was conducting research into the brain’s cannabinoid receptors, which can help researchers understand appetite, nausea, mood, pain and inflammation.
Huffman has described those who smoke synthetic marijuana as “idiots.” He said the health effects of smoking fake pot aren’t known, and that regular marijuana is probably safer.
“Based upon anecdotal data only,” he said, “fake marijuana is considerably more dangerous than the real stuff.”
-- Marc Caputo can be reached at mcaputo@MiamiHerald.com.