Florida law enforcement authorities continue to target synthetic drugs, but it's a moving target. As soon as the state bans specific substances, so-called "rogue" chemists change the formulas.
On Tuesday, Attorney General Pam Bondi issued an emergency rule adding 22 more substances to the banned list, but it probably won't end there. Authorities suspect criminals are already at work in their makeshift labs altering the recipes and staying one step ahead of the law.
"Kids are overdosing," said Bondi. "The numbers are staggering and we are not going to let them get ahead of us... we are going to put them out of business."
Officials said the products -- with names such as bath salts, Spice or K2 -- are being marketed as safe alternatives to marijuana and cocaine. "I can assure you folks that they are not safe," said Gerald Bailey, Florida Department of Law Enforcement commissioner. Bailey said product packaging lists ingredients such as "lion's tail" and "colt's foot." "People that are ingesting these things have really no idea of what they are taking into their bodies," he said.
Pointing to a display of synthetic drugs, Bondi said the catchy names and colorful packaging of products make it obvious that the makers are targeting kids. She specifically referenced a product called "Cotton Candy." "If you touch and feel it, it feels like cotton candy," she said. "These are marketed to children... these are disgusting."
Bondi said synthetic drugs have spread throughout the state but singled out the man at her side -- Bay County Sheriff Frank McKeithen -- as the law enforcement officer who first sounded the alarm when she took office in January 2011. "He came to me and I credit him with really bringing this problem to light," Bondi said.
Back in his office on Wednesday, McKeithen said Bondi's praise is a tribute to the entire sheriff's department. "When you have someone like the Attorney General point out something good, it certainly is an honor... and it's humbling," said McKeithen.
Soon after her meeting with the sheriff, Bondi issued an emergency ban on six substances. State lawmakers then made the ban permanent in a bill that included an additional 92 substances. In May 2011, Governor Rick Scott traveled to Bay County for a ceremonial signing of the legislation at the sheriff's office.
During Tuesday's news conference in Tallahassee, the state's Surgeon General said synthetic drugs can be more harmful than the ones they're intended to mimic. "By changing the molecular structure of the active ingredient in marijuana and amphetamines, criminals synthesize drugs that are more dangerous," said Dr. John Armstrong. Adverse reactions can include hallucinations, psychotic episodes, tremors, seizures and death, he said.
The FDLE's Bailey said law enforcement agencies throughout the state will ask retailers to voluntarily remove newly banned substances from their shelves. Sheriff McKeithen, though, said he has already been there and done that. "People should know by now... this thing just didn't start today," said McKeithen. "If they have it in their business and we go to their business and it meets the criteria, we are going to arrest them."
The Attorney General said she will work with lawmakers to permanently ban the 22 newly identified substances during the 2013 legislative session.