Every so often local politicians and their top cops seize on the public concern of the moment: crack, porn, weed, bath salts, strip joints, gambling parlors, sex offenders, pill mills. Official tizzies follow in the form of crackdowns and new laws or regulations. Alarm and attention subside. Cops and politicians move on to the next tizzy. In this case, synthetic marijuana.
Members of the Palm Coast City Council have been receiving emails about the stuff being sold legally at convenience stores and smoke shops, even in Palm Coast. Earlier this month Mayor Jon Netts brought up the matter to gauge interest among fellow-council members for city action against what’s also known as fake pot or herbal incense or “spice” and sold under a variety of brand names for up to $50 for 3 grams.
Synthetic pot isn’t marijuana. It’s a chemical concoction that replicates some of the effects of marijuana on the brain, along with other, little-known reactions, with potentially more toxic side effects: the drug, available only for the last few years, has not been studied, and its effects have not been systematically documented—nor has its uses. (For complete background on synthetic marijuana, go here.)
So anecdotal evidence about its consequences, and rumors about its prevalence, abound, producing a synthetic political reaction of its own. The discussion Netts prompted elicited some interest and wonder among council members, some of whom, when hearing about the drug, could not believe it was available legally. There was interest in pursuing the matter, but it wasn’t clear to what extent. The city administration began investigating.
Earlier today, council member Frank Meeker brought up the matter again, seeking city regulation of some sort, much to Netts’s pleasure. “I was kind of lukewarm to the concept originally,” Meeker , who often speaks of his disdain of government over-regulating private lives, said. “I’d like to bring it back for reconsideration.”
“Thank you for bringing this back,” Netts told him. “It’s something I think we need to deal with somehow, some way.” Netts had spoken of the issue last week at the League of Cities group he heads in the county, where there was talk of doing something concerted, the way all local governments and the sheriff teamed up to devise new ordinances cracking down on pill mills posing as pain management clinics (even though there were no such pill mills in the county at the time. The fear was that absent strict regulations, South Florida’s pill mills would eventually migrate to Flagler County).
“If nothing else I want to make a statement in Palm Coast that we do not condone, support, encourage this kind of behavior,” Netts said.
But almost every council member had a different approach. Should it be the sheriff’s purview? Code enforcement’s? Should it be a matter of selling, purchasing and possession or of behavior? Meeker suggested a curious, if legally problematic, approach along those lines.
“There’s two things that I’d like to do if we’re going to do a synthetic marijuana ordinance,” Meeker—who is leaving the council in November and is running for the county commission currently—said. “The first thing you do is you don’t regulate the chemical, you regulate the results of the chemical—those things that cause a hallucinogenic or euphoric something or another, in a process similar to what happens under smoking marijuana, or using LSD, or any of the opiates, or whatever. Something like that. You regulate the impact of the use of it, as opposed to the specific chemical itself. The second thing—the enforcement issue, whether it should be code enforcement.” He doesn’t want the city’s code enforcement involved so much as the sheriff.
His suggestion about regulating the effects of the drug would be a first: there are no legal precedents where individuals are punished for being under the influence of a narcotic or of alcohol, absent proof that that, in fact, is what they’re under the influence of: even absent a breathalyzer test, cops seize on evidence of alcohol—odor, receptacles of alcoholic beverages, the tell-tale symptoms of a driver under the influence. Judging an individual’s “euphoria” or hallucinations would entail a subjectivity that cops in particular and the law in general try to avoid, since the two symptoms can also be triggered by harmless circumstances or illnesses or inexplicable reasons.
“One of the potential problems with synthetic marijuana,” an FBI bulletin on the drug notes, “is the inability to identify the substances or recognize the immediate effects they may have on an individual.”
Meeker’s second point drew more attention. The city isn’t interested in saddling its code enforcement department with more responsibilities.
“My thought is, we have neither the expertise nor the laboratory facilities to analyze,” Netts said. “Sheriff’s department does. We pass an ordinance that prohibits the use of hallucinogenic blah blah, whatever, whatever, whatever. It’s code enforcement. Code enforcement does nothing. But when the sheriff goes in and says oooh, you’ve got this bad stuff and I’m going to arrest you, the code enforcement piggy backs on that. Sheriff does initiate, does the study, makes an arrest, and we say, you’re in violation of the code, now you’re going to suffer the sheriff’s department, you’re going to suffer a code enforcement violation as well.”
Council member Bill McGuire had a different idea. “If you’re selling it, that’s where I think we should go. And I don’t know how to do it—to go after the people that sell the stuff.”
“You all, have our own target,” Jim Landon, the city manager, said. “It’s a matter of blending them all together.” He’s set up a meeting with the sheriff’s office next week to discuss the matter. “One thing I think we’re hopefully all in agreement, our code enforcement people are not law enforcement people, and when there’s illegal sales going on, that’s not where our code people come up and then can make an arrest or determine whether it really is an illegal substance. That’s not what we do. That’s something the sheriff does. But I do think that it’s now one of those that code enforcement can help.”
Unlike the discussion in early July, this time the council appeared intent on moving ahead with an ordinance of some sort, though most state legislatures are moving in that direction anyway, and the Drug Enforcement Agency currently has banned five common compounds used to make synthetic marijuana, and has a proposal pending that would permanently make those chemicals illegal.
But Netts wants concerted action. “You don’t want one city to enact something and simply shift the problem somewhere else,” he said. “Anything that we come up with we will share with our sister cities so that they can consider the same kind of action so we make a county-wide statement.”
“It’s not one of those real easy things, and this one won’t be three pages, I can almost guarantee you, because it’s a lot more complicated than that,” Landon said. “But I do think your direction is very good. Make sure we work with the sheriff’s office, try to have multiple facets of ways to enforce it, see whatever works, because this is, you squeeze it one place and it oozes out somewhere else is what’s been happening, and so we’ve got to try to block all the holes possible and try to minimize.”
“The ball is in your court,” Netts told Landon.