Photo courtesy of THE CLEARWATER POLICE DEPARTMENT
Police filled 49 large, black trash bags full of synthetic marijuana at the Hillcrest Store in Clearwater during a July 11 raid.
CLEARWATER – The Clearwater Police Department seized the largest haul of synthetic marijuana in the city’s history July 11, taking in more than 18,000 packets from just one of the stores raided, according to Rob Shaw, Clearwater public safety spokesman.
“We visited four stores for the raids on Thursday,” Shaw said. “Basically, our officers have been keeping an eye on the establishments that have been known to be selling these products against the law. And many months ago, we sent out letters letting them know that it was no longer legal to sell these products. But these four had continued to turn the other way and sell these products, so that’s why we pursued action against the four.”
The stores involved are Wanna Save at 1360 Cleveland St.; Hillcrest Store at 1391 Gulf-to-Bay Blvd.; Super Sonic at 724 S. Missouri Ave.; and Danny’s Tobacco Shop at 1621 Gulf-to-Bay Blvd.
By far, the largest haul was from Hillcrest Store, where the 18,000 packages were taken out in 49 large, black trash bags, totaling a street value of about $300,000, Shaw said. There was so much product that it would not even fit in a single police van. The hauls at the other stores were minor in comparison, he said.
The raid was a result of several months of investigation. The police department had also received complaints from residents and local business owners near the stores who had noticed the illegal activity.
“When we were at one scene, there was a business owner who had stopped by and asked if it was synthetic marijuana related,” Shaw said. “When we said it was, he was almost giddy that hopefully the situation would be nipped in the bud. He indicated that he was tired of seeing kids, young adults stumbling from that store on a frequent basis.”
Four arrests were made during the raid.
Christopher Dolu, 30, of Clearwater, associated with the Hillcrest Store, was charged with felony charges of possession of synthetic cannabis, distribution of synthetic cannabis and sale of synthetic cannabis, all a schedule 1 narcotic. He was released from the Pinellas County Jail on a $25,000 bond.
Jean Bitar, 57, of Palm Harbor and associated with Danny’s Smoke Shop, was booked with felony charges of two counts of sale of a controlled substance – synthetic cannabis, two counts possession of a controlled substance – synthetic cannabis and was being held at the Pinellas County Jail on a $23,000 bond for those charges. He was also on an ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) hold.
Tarek Allababidi, 19, of Tampa, associated with the Super Sonic, has felony charges of two counts sale or delivery of a controlled substance, and two counts of possession of a controlled substance. He was released from the Pinellas County Jail in lieu of $22,000 bond.
Finally, Remon Saber Aziz Farg, 33, of Clearwater, associated with the Wanna Save, was charged with sale of synthetic cannabis and was released from the Pinellas County Jail in lieu of $5,000 bond.
Synthetic drugs are challenging to investigate because they are ever changing, Shaw said.
“It’s an ever changing thing because as soon as the (Florida) legislature outlaws one substance, the makers of these products come up with something totally different to circumvent the rules,” Shaw said. “So when we go into stores, if we have an undercover detective buying these products, then they have to be sent to a lab to see what they contain and if the products are on the banned list. So it’s an exhaustive process, trying to keep ahead of the curve. And I think one of the really outrageous things about these products is many of them are marketed toward the younger crowd. When you have names like Scooby Snax and Mr. Happy with a picture of a giant happy smiley face, they are blatantly targeting younger people.”
Many young people don’t realize how dangerous these products really are, Shaw said. They can’t know what chemicals and substances they are actually putting into their body or what kind of effect or consequences will come of taking the drugs.
For instance, in January 2012, a 19-year-old Palm Harbor University graduate was on Christmas break from college and ended up dying from consequences related to synthetic marijuana.
“He was hanging out with friends and smoked a substance called Jazz and shortly thereafter, in the early morning hours, he and a friend were at Kapok Park and he tripped and fell in a creek and drowned,” Shaw said. “It was only like 14 inches of water in that creek, so under a normal circumstance, he trips, he falls, he’s probably fine, he gets up and goes on his way. But under the influence of this substance, he was disoriented and drowned because he didn’t have enough capacity at the time to get out of that situation. (These substances) are a threat to people’s well-being and health. You hear other tales of kids or young adults using it and then acting strangely. Violently. And other risky behaviors.”
Shaw warns other stores that may still be selling synthetic drugs that they should stop selling these products.
“I would hope that they would learn from this and that everyone would stop selling it because it’s illegal and dangerous and needs to be stopped right now,” Shaw said.
Deputy Police Chief Sandra Wilson visited the Wanna Save store as the raid was underway and agreed that it is imperative to get these substances off the streets.
“It’s very important,” Wilson said. “It’s affecting our teens and young adults.”
A total of $15,000 in cash was also seized from the various stores.