SEFFNER — Rankled by the continued availability of synthetic drugs on the shelves of some convenience stores, Hillsborough County law and code enforcement officials began handing out citations to store owners this week.
On Wednesday, agents with the county’s consumer protection agency and code enforcement and sheriff’s deputies announced the results of a months-long sting dubbed “Operation K2,” targeting convenience store owners who stock such contraband and sell it to customers, at times surreptitiously.
Law enforcement has long tried to stop the sale of products that are sold under such names as K2 or Spice. It has been hard to successfully prosecute arrests, though; the state Legislature has outlawed 142 different chemical compounds used in synthetic drugs, but manufacturers get around the law by tweaking the chemical composition.
In February, the Hillsborough County Commission passed an ordinance to shift the battleground away from criminal court. Commissioners passed an ordinance banning stores from selling such products; store owners who violate the new rule can be fined up to $500 per package.
Shortly after the ordinance was passed, warning letters were sent to 40 convenience store owners across unincorporated Hillsborough who were suspected of selling the contraband, officials said. The letters ordered them to get the products off the shelves.
After the letters were sent out, undercover deputies went back to check.
In some cases, the illegal substances — which can fetch up to $50 a package — went from the shelves to below the counter and required a code word from the buyer to make the purchase, said sheriff’s Capt. Kyle Cockream with the department’s special investigations division.
Citations for those store owners who refused to comply were handed to them this week. To contest the citations, owners can argue their cases at code enforcement administrative hearings.
“We will absolutely hold people accountable,” Cockream said. “The problem is not going away and we are not going away. The message is this: We are going to come see you. Make no mistake, we are coming to see you.”
Hillsborough Code Enforcement Board Director Dexter Barge said this is the first enforcement effort of the county’s ordinance that banned the sale, possession, distribution and manufacture of certain synthetic drugs. Store owners cited a second time face fines of up to $1,000 per package.
“It becomes a very expensive for those who violate the ordinance,” Barge said.
In February, the Hillsborough commission unanimously agreed to tackle the problem through civil fines. Enforcement is handled by the county’s code enforcement board and consumer protection agency, which has set up a complaint line for tips.
Of the 40 stores warned, 19 violations were logged at 10 of the locations, said Kevin Jackson, head of the consumer protection agency. Before the ordinance was adopted, he said, the sale of the packages were open and anyone could buy them, including children.
The packages appear to be marketed to teens and young adults in brightly colored packaging under catchy brand names such as Mr. Happy Potpourri, Mind Trip and Jazz. Though law enforcement agencies say the products are meant to mimic the effects of THC, the psychoactive chemical in marijuana, authorities say the chemicals in those substances can cause anxiety, nausea and hallucinations.
Wednesday, notices of violations were hand-delivered to some of the stores, including the Country Food Store on the corner of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Pine Street in Seffner. Code enforcement officer Jonathan Williams gave the copy to the clerk with instructions to give it to the owner, who was not there.
“I don’t know anything about it,” said the clerk, Yaseen Wenbach, after he signed for the violation. “I have no idea. I just started here this week.”
Williams then went across the street at the Alpo Chino Hookah Lounge and Smoke Shop.
“I just work here,” said the clerk, before she slipped into a back room where she spoke with Williams privately. She refused to sign anything but promised to give the paperwork to the shop’s owner.
“I just do what I’m told,” she said.