NAPLES — Packets of bath salts, plant food and incense being sold in convenience stores probably won't put suds in your tub, help your flowers grow or make your house smell better, but authorities say that's not what they're intended for.
The otherwise-marketed substances typically are designed as a synthetic marijuana or a stimulant that mimics cocaine or methamphetamine.
"This stuff works by clogging up your brain cells," said Lt. Harold Minch, with the Collier County Sheriff's Office special investigations unit. "If you light anything on fire and suck it into your lungs, it's not good for you. Simple as that."
From 2010 to 2011, U.S. poison control centers saw their calls for synthetic marijuana more than double; their calls for "bath salts" increased 20-fold. Bans on the drugs in 30-plus states have been largely ineffective, as manufacturers have simply gone back to the lab and changed the chemical makeup of the substances, effectively making the bans worthless.
In March, Florida Gov. Rick Scott signed a bill banning more strands of the substances, meant to close loopholes found by manufacturers. Although there are now about 145 strands of chemicals made illegal, some law enforcement officers have a feeling they're in for another game of cat and mouse.
"I don't know what is going to prevent these people from just going back to the lab ... and substituting new chemicals that will rot your brain," Minch said.
Though not an alarming trend in Collier, Minch said the substances tend to be popular with people on probation because they often don't show up on a standard drug screen.
Teenagers also have been known to use the drugs because of their perception as being legal.
"One of the big things is just the availability that you can just go into the gas station and get them," said Steven Hill, director at the Vince Smith Center, which provides residential treatment in Lee County for 13- to 17-year-olds. "Over the past year, we've seen a huge increase in our youths."
Although teenage patients in the residential program tend to have more extreme histories of drug use, Hill said at least 80 percent of those in the program had experimented with synthetic drugs. A handful of them are being treated primarily for synthetic drug use, he said.
"In a community of our size, there's no doubt that it's out there," Lee Sheriff Mike Scott said. "It's kind of like when people were sniffing glue or taking the aerosol cans — they called it huffing. People just do what they want to get into an altered state."
Elsewhere in Lee County, a handful of people have been arrested on synthetic drug charges, although it is typically an added charge in connection with another crime, Sheriff Mike Scott said.
"In a community of our size, there's no doubt that it's out there," sheriff Scott said. "It's kind of like when people were sniffing glue or taking the aerosol cans — they called it huffing. People just do what they want to get into an altered state."
The spinning wheel of manufacturing changes is also a problem when it comes to testing people for the substances, said Emily Castillo, clinical supervisor at the Collier-based David Lawrence Center.
"The drug tests are almost behind, with all the new changes coming out," she said. "They're expensive, and there are so many different strands (of the drugs) that we don't necessarily have a test if there's a new strand coming out."
And it has made it hard for authorities to make arrests. Packages of the substances were taken from four or five Collier stores last year to be tested, but none contained chemicals that were considered illegal, sheriff's lieutenant Minch said.
No arrests have been made for people using the drugs, either.
"We don't want to arrest somebody who doesn't have something illegal in them," he said.
Despite setbacks, in the aftermath of the governor's new ban, sheriff's officials say they will keep an eye on businesses that carry the synthetic drugs.
"If they're dirty and illegal, we'll put them in jail," Minch said. "The people that are selling it are preying on basically stupidity for profit, which is disgraceful.
"They sell it anyway."