By Yaël Ossowski | Florida Watchdog
TALLAHASSEE — Florida is undergoing a drug epidemic and it needs more funding and laws to help starve the beast of use and abuse.
That was the message Wednesday at the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee, which upheld the emergency substance ban on certain drugs announced by Attorney General Pam Bondi in 2011, who has declared war on synthetic drugs.
After consulting police officers and expert witnesses, the committee informally recommended enshrining bans on synthetic substances into state law in order to “save people’s lives,” in the words of committee member state Rep. Charles Van Zant, R-Jacksonville.
“I was surprised, and frankly encouraged, to learn that Florida has actually banned more substances than the federal government,” said subcommittee chair state Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Shalimar, noting the state’s premier role as the nation’s largest enforcer of drug possession and abuse.
The committee heard testimony describing the current process for policing synthetic substances, chemically-altered compounds popularly known as ‘bath salts’ and found in names such as ”Cloud 9”, ”Mauie Wowie” and ”Ivory Wave.”
“It’s just a little disconcerting that every year we’re back here doing the same, same thing,” said state Rep. Gayle Harrell, R-Port St. Lucie, who suggesting penalizing retailers like 7-Eleven who may have some of these substances available.
“There’s an old saying that you can’t legislate human behavior,” said Zant, himself suggesting that the state hire some “smart chemists” to track down the compounds used to allow users to get high.
“If ‘Mawi Wowi’ is not trending on Twitter right now, we have not done our job,” said Gaetz, the son of Florida Senate president Don Gaetz.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement reports that 9,135 Floridians died of accidental overdose from legal drugs in 2011, the highest in the nation.
By 2009, the number of prescription drug deaths was four times that of deaths involving illicit drugs, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Critics point out that the fervor surrounding synthetic bans borders on showmanship.
“If politicians sincerely cared about public health they would ban these substances for minors and objectively study them to determine if they do more damage to an adult than a permanent criminal record for possessing them,” said Robert Arthur, a lawyer and author who now studies modern taboos.
He told Florida Watchdog that it isn’t clear that such a ban is effective against these drugs.
“As a former public defender who represented involuntarily committed individuals I can tell you that insane violent behavior occurs all the time by people that are completely sober,” he told Florida Watchdog. “You just don’t hear about it because it is not newsworthy unless it can be linked to the ‘scary’ drug of the moment.”
Arthur said making these substances illegal actually gives the drug more popularity and increases the likelihood that people will break laws in order to attain them.
He points to a 2012 study in the Journal of Substance Use that found that mephedrone — the most common bath salt compound — actually become even more popular after bans were passed in the UK.
“Violent people with severe mental health issues should avoid the excessive use of any drug, particularly alcohol – the drug most linked to violence,” said Arthur.
Contact Yaël Ossowski, Watchdog.org’s Florida Bureau Chief, at Yael@Watchdog.org