Pubdate: Mon, 19 Oct 2015
Source: Tampa Tribune (FL)
Copyright: 2015 The Tribune Co.
Author: Elaine Silvestrini, Tribune staff
Page: A1


Prosecutions Are Up, but Formulas Change Quicker Than the Drug Code Can

TAMPA - Synthetic marijuana and other drugs continue to bedevil 
authorities, who say some progress is being made in the battle 
against unregulated chemicals that are landing teenagers and young 
adults in emergency rooms with horrifying reactions.

Although prosecutions mount, authorities say local law enforcement is 
frustrated by drug sellers who make minor changes in chemical 
formulations to get around the law, staying just out of reach of 
police. Once a substance is specifically listed as illegal, a new 
formula is created.

While fake pot and other synthetic drugs may not be sold as openly as 
they were in convenience stores a few years ago, they're still 
readily available, officials say, with frightening consequences.

Dr. Alfred Aleguas, director of the Florida Poison Information Center 
at Tampa General Hospital, said emergency rooms around the country 
have seen a spike in cases of young people with serious medical 
problems from using fake pot and other synthetic substances.

Regionally, for example, there have been about a dozen instances of 
people in their late teens and early 20s suffering from strokes since 
late last year, Aleguas said.

At first, doctors didn't know the cause. But when a sibling of one of 
the patients had the same experience within a couple of months and 
then reported using synthetic marijuana, doctors started to piece it together.

'The side effects are pretty unpredictable,' Aleguas said. Although 
there have yet to be deaths locally, 'some people ended up in rehab 
that had to learn how to walk and talk again.' One local man 
authorities said ran an enterprise that made fake pot in four states 
has settled a 3-year-old legal battle over more than $18 million in 
assets federal prosecutors had seized from him and his family. Under 
the deal, Timothy Hummel will get back about $12 million and forfeit the rest.

Hummel, 66, of Redington Beach, has also pleaded guilty to the 
relatively minor federal offense of selling misbranded drugs. He is 
awaiting sentencing. His son and son-in-law were sentenced last week 
to probation.

Hummel's lawyer, Jim Felman, said the pleas and forfeiture settlement 
represent a compromise. The charge doesn't require the defendant to 
have known what he was doing was illegal, Felman said, and 
prosecutors don't claim they can prove Hummel knew he was doing 
anything illegal.

Officials said the business operated by the Hummels and others raked 
in at least $38 million locally in less than three years selling 
products under names including 'Green Cobra,' 'White Rabbit' and 
'Bayou Blaster Swamp Sachet.' Felman argued that the chemicals the 
business sold were not illegal at the time, but federal prosecutors 
asserted the substances were covered under the law because they were 
considered analogues, defined as 'substantially similar' to another 
drug that was listed as illegal.

Felman said analogue prosecutions raise serious constitutional 
questions because citizens are not on notice that what they are doing 
is illegal.

'We have laws in this country for a reason, so you know what you can 
and cannot do,' he said, 'and when you start to get into a situation 
where you're blurring those lines and you're going to start 
imprisoning people based on conduct that's not in a law just because 
you think it's morally wrong, then none of us have any protection 
left.' Hummel, for example, was putting his name on his products and 
selling them in stores open to the public, Felman said.

'Who would do such a thing if they thought what they were doing was 
illegal?' Hummel also moved from state to state on his lawyer's 
advice, as the laws changed in different jurisdictions. 'He was 
following the law,' Felman said.

The U.S. Attorney's Office couldn't provide statistics on 
prosecutions for synthetic marijuana and other synthetic drugs. But 
officials did provide a list of more than two dozen defendants 
prosecuted in Tampa federal court in the last two years.

The synthetic drugs are 'extremely dangerous because they're 
unregulated products mostly marketed to young teens,' said Assistant 
U.S. Attorney Rachelle DesVaux Bedke. 'When the new ones hit, nobody 
knows at the outset what's in them or what kind of effect they have.' 
Local law enforcement, she added, 'has definitely worked hard to get 
them off the shelves' of convenience stores, 'but they're still 
available.' Federal investigators concentrate on large-scale 
manufacturers and distributors of controlled substances.

Examples of such cases include Ahmed Faroun, 30, of Temple Terrace, 
who was arrested last year after an undercover investigation that led 
to charges he manufactured and sold both controlled substances and analogues.

Some cases prosecuted in Tampa federal court have resulted in 
significant prison sentences, including for Manan Abdul, 28, of 
Venice, who received an eight-year prison term for manufacturing and 
selling synthetic pot with XLR-11, a drug specifically listed as a 
controlled substance. According to Abdul's plea agreement, the 
Florida Highway Patrol seized about 1,600 packages of the fake pot from Abdul.

Hank Kuhn, 29, of St. Petersburg, was sentenced to five years and 
three months for a conspiracy in which the perpetrators ordered over 
the Internet a substance from China that was molecularly similar to a 
controlled substance.

But sometimes defendants, such as Hummel, have received more lenient treatment.

Cean Al Najjar, 35, of Palm Harbor, and Michael Petrucci, 50, of 
Tampa were co-defendants who appeared before U.S. District Judge 
Steven D. Merryday. The judge gave each a year and a day behind bars, 
even though federal guidelines called for higher sentences. In 
passing the sentence, Merryday said the guidelines recommendation was 
'dizzying.' Street-level cases are the purview of state attorneys.

Hillsborough Assistant State Attorney Darrell Dirks, who is in charge 
of drug prosecutions for that office, said Florida's law is 
inadequate to address the ever-changing chemical formulations.

'I started prosecuting 35 years ago,' Dirks said. Back then, 'you 
knew what controlled substances were. ... We had 5,' including 
heroin, cocaine and marijuana.

'Today it's completely different,' Dirks added. 'Today we have a huge 
problem with chemists that are hired by the bad guys making minor 
alterations to the molecular structure of these substances to the 
point where they don't identify as a specifically listed' in the law.

Every year, Dirks said, dozens of new substances are added to the 
list of controlled substances in the state. Three years ago, there 
were 50 substances on the list. Now there are 175.

'We're identifying these new drugs after the bad guys have already 
started using them and selling them,' Dirks said. 'As soon as it 
becomes difficult to sell ... they make a minor tweak to structure so 
it isn't. We've been playing this game for years now under Florida's 
system of defining controlled substances, which is becoming 
antiquated.' Analogue substances - or substances that are 
substantially similar to listed formulations - are illegal too in 
Florida. But Dirks said the state's analogue statute has requirements 
that are difficult for law enforcement to surmount.

In particular, Dirks said, for a drug to be considered an analogue to 
an illegal substance, it has to have a 'similar stimulant or 
hallucinogenic effect on the system.' But when a substance is new, 
there is no history, no studies to determine the pharmacological 
effect on the human body, Dirks said. So prosecutors can't provide 
experts in court to testify that the new chemical meets the 
definition of an analogue.

By the time that information is available, still newer substances are 

Many other states have adopted laws that define substances by their 
core molecular structure, Dirks said. In this approach, the laws 
cover substances created by making minor changes to the molecular 
structures of existing formulations.

'This seems to be a more reasonable approach to combating this 
problem,' Dirks said.

Statistics provided by Aleguas show that in Hillsborough, Pasco and 
Pinellas counties, the number of emergency room patients linked to 
use of synthetic marijuana has been creeping up since 2013, when 
there were 36. There were 42 in the first nine months of this year.

The numbers are significantly down from the 104 patients seen in 2011 
and 94 in 2012. Around that time, the state and federal government 
enacted legislation that helped address these substances, Dirks said. 
He said his office has been able to bring cases against people who 
sell substances after they have been added to Florida's list.

'The problem is the smart ones,' Dirks said. 'As soon as they realize 
they're going to be prosecuted, then they just modify the structure. 
And we will go on through this process with no foreseeable end to 
this constant modification of the statute with the system we now have in place.'
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom