Friday, April 06, 2012

TOP STORY >>‘Pot-pourri’ bust stops big profits for 3 stores

Leader staff writers

Multi-million dollar businesses openly selling what law enforcement and the county prosecutor call illegal drugs and drug paraphernalia were shut down in northern Lonoke County on Wednesday morning when state and local law-enforcement officers raided tobacco shops in Ward, Austin and Cabot.

The merchandise that was seized in the raids included more than 15,000 packets of synthetic marijuana and about 3,000 pieces of drug paraphernalia.

Blown glass pipes and synthetic marijuana packaged as “pot-pourri” were among the seized inventory. The products were openly displayed and sold to anyone with $20 to $50 to pay for them, though the synthetic marijuana was marked “not for human consumption.”

So far, three business owners have been arrested on felony charges and more arrests are expected in the first drug bust of its kind in Lonoke County.

Lonoke County Prosecutor Chuck Graham says his interpretation of the state law is that any product that is similar in chemical makeup is included on the state’s list of illegal Schedule VI drugs.

“I’ve heard some comments that it’s not marijuana,” Graham said. “Well, under the law it is.”

Up in Smoke tobacco store on 3057 Hwy. 367 North in Austin, Rock’s Smoke- N-Bait on 615 Hickory St., in Ward and Alford Tobacco Store on 521 W. Main St. in Cabot were raided simultaneously.

All three local police departments as well as the sheriff’s office, Arkansas State Police and Arkansas Tobacco Control participated in the investigation.

Sgt. Brandon Hampton with the Lonoke County Sheriff’s Office said law-enforcement officials seized several cases of synthetic marijuana known as potpourri. He said Rock’s Smoke-N-Bait, which is open seven days a week, averaged $12,000 a day selling potpourri, about $4.4 million a year.

The owners of that store turned themselves in Thursday after warrants were issued for their arrests: Beth Glover, 51, her son, Jeremy Reed, 33, and his wife, Stephanie Reed, 36. Jeremy Reed is a firefighter for North Little Rock and Glover is a clerk for the district court in Ward.

Glover and the Reeds were arrested for delivery of a controlled substance, possession of a controlled substance with intent to deliver, possession of drug paraphernalia and maintaining a drug premise. A bond of $20,000 was set. Jeremy Reed was also arrested for simultaneous possession of drugs and firearms.

Graham said the owners of all three stores have attorneys. He is sure they will turn themselves in when the arrest warrants are completed.

The investigation into the sale of the synthetic marijuana started late last summer by various law enforcement agencies in the county but was moving slowly until it got a jumpstart at the end of December when state Sen. Eddie Joe Williams (R-Cabot) went to the State Police after he received a call from the frantic mother of a 14-year-old boy who almost died on Dec. 29 after smoking a product called Diablo (Spanish for devil).

The Leader spoke to the mother Thursday.

“I wasn’t aware he had it,” the mother said. “The kid next door actually bought it (at the Ward tobacco store). I was cooking and the boy came in and said my son had been stung by a wasp. I thought that was odd because he’s not allergic. I turned off the stove and went outside. When I got there, he was unconscious and he was gray, really gray.”

His pulse was weak and emergency workers had difficulty getting his blood pressure, she said. He was taken by ambulance to Arkansas Children’s Hospital in Little Rock where he recovered but not fully.

The mother said her son told her he knew something was wrong when he looked down at their dog after smoking the drug and it looked as big as Clifford the Big Red Dog.

More than three months later, he still has hallucinations.

“He (sometimes) sees boxes and circles floating around in the air. And he’ll know people are with him but they seem faraway,” she said.

Austin Police Chief John Staley, who also serves on the Ward City Council, said the problem with the investigation was that without analyzing the synthetic pot it is impossible to determine if its components include any of the illegal chemicals named in state law. And he has neither the staff nor the money to fully investigate.

The danger from the drug is that it is impossible for consumers to know what is in it, how strong it is and the potential harmful effects.

The potpourri is a concoction of various plants sprayed with chemicals. Staley compared the manufacturing process to pouring syrup on pancakes. Some pour a little and some pour a lot. There is no consistency, he said.

Staley said he had seen juveniles have convulsions after smoking the potpourri, “flopping on the ground like a fish,” he said. So he knew the drug was harmful but whether it was illegal was not as clear.

“People have constitutional rights,” he said, but he added that it was frustrating to see what was being sold and not know how to stop it. Any rational person would know the actual intended use of the merchandise, he said.

“They call it potpourri, but they don’t sell containers for it. All they sell is bongs,” Staley said.

Staley said he is grateful to the senator for getting the state to help with the investigation.

The senator said he was also motivated by a news article he read on Dec. 30, when the mother called him. It was an account of an Arkansas teenager who died from using the drug. And like Staley, he says the intended use of the products is only barely obscured by the packaging. In addition to potpourri, the drug is also sold as bath salts.

“Who buys bath salts in a tobacco store?” the senator asked. “You go to Victoria’s Secret or someplace like that.”