Young protesters, from left, Jessie Peterson, 16, her boyfriend Matt Christunas, 17, and Daniel Johnson, 21, say they have had personal experience with the dangers of synthetic drugs. The trio joined other protesters in front of Riley’s Food Mart in Largo May 9.
LARGO – A group of concerned parents and teenagers held brightly colored signs along Seminole Boulevard in Largo May 9 to warn of the dangerous products still sold in convenience stores all over Pinellas County.
Riley’s Food Mart, where the group gathered, is just one of the places still selling synthetic drugs, said Missy Peterson, who organized the protest in front of the store with her husband, Jeff. The protesters say they have seen the sales continue despite the fact that the state of Florida has banned substances sometimes called bath salts or incense and packaged as Spice, K2 and dozens of other colorful product names designed to target teenagers and children.
“We wanted our community to know, here in Largo and in Pinellas County, that we don’t want these convenient stores to sell synthetic drugs anymore to our teenage kids,” Missy said.
The Petersons, who were interviewed by Tampa Bay Newspapers for a series about synthetic drugs last year, have struggled to deal with the effects of synthetic drugs in their family. Over the last two years, their now 16-year-old daughter, Jessie, has been in and out of four different long-term rehabilitation programs for her addiction to synthetic drugs.
But that evening, Jessie joined her parents in front of Riley’s. She’d been off the products for five days and said she’d had enough.
“It means a lot for Jessie to be here today and to show that she doesn’t want to smoke the synthetic pot anymore,” Missy said. “We’re very proud of her that she’s standing next to us.”
The Petersons said they held the protest in front of Riley’s because they know “for a fact” that their daughter and her friends have bought synthetic drugs at the convenience store.
“Basically, if you live in this area, this is where you’re going to come for it,” Jessie explained. “This is known.”
Law enforcement is doing what they can to stop the sale of illegal synthetic drugs, the Petersons said. But it was time for residents to make their voices and their presence felt directly by the businesses they hold responsible for the sales.
“All they’re doing is poisoning our kids. And they don’t seem to care and understand what it does to a family and to a community as a whole,” Missy said.
It’s not that hard to get the synthetic drugs at Riley’s, her daughter explained. You have to come at a certain time and buy the products from a specific employee who keeps the product behind the counter. He’ll charge you extra so he can pocket the profits and he’s “sketchy about cops,” Jessie said.
But he’ll sell it to anyone, she added. Her boyfriend, 17-year-old Matt Christunas, agreed. His mother, Judy Christunas, said she came to the store with her son last weekend.
“As I was shopping, he went to the counter and bought some,” she said.
“It’s as easy as that,” Matt said.
Inside the store, manager Qazi Haque said Riley’s used to sell synthetic drugs, but stopped once they were declared illegal.
“I told the owner, ‘I don’t want to get into trouble because I work here,’” Haque said. “We just work here for a little amount of money. We don’t know about the law that much.”
The laws and regulations regarding synthetic drugs got confusing, he said, but the owner didn’t open Riley’s “to sell illegal stuff.”
Synthetic drugs, often packaged with labels that state “not for human consumption,” used to be legal in Florida and everywhere else. Starting in January 2011, Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi declared certain chemical compounds illegal in emergency rulings. State legislation has followed, though law enforcement has said that manufacturers continually tweak the products to keep them “legal.”
Recently, on April 15, Gov. Rick Scott signed a law that banned 27 synthetic drugs, in addition to those already outlawed.
Haque said that he didn’t think the different products should be illegal, but didn’t have any personal experience with them.
Abdul Qulam, owner of Riley’s Food Mart, said he didn’t mind the protest in front of his store. As a father himself, he understood parents’ concern for keeping children safe.
“I can say that I used to sell incense when it was named ‘incense.’ But then they started calling it ‘drugs,’” he explained. “We stopped selling that a long time ago.”
Qulam, a Largo resident who owns two other local convenience stores, said he built Riley’s Food Mart up from a vacant storefront and wanted it to be a positive part of the community. He addressed the teenagers’ accusations that a specific employee was selling them the synthetic drugs with doubt.
“My employees shouldn’t have anything like that without my consent,” he said. “I don’t think they sell anything like that.”
Jessie and Matt both said they’ve had seizures after smoking synthetic drugs. The products can make you feel weak, like it’s hard to lift your arms and legs, Jessie said.
“It all started off with the first one: Red Magic,” Jessie said. “And then it went from that on to all these different new ones.”
Seeing herself on the news, as her parent’s cried out against synthetic drugs, was Jessie’s wakeup call, she said. Withdrawal has caused her to cough up “gray stuff,” gave her “headaches like crazy” and nausea.
“I feel better every day. I crave it sometimes,” she admitted. “It’s just like a temporary happiness.”
Rehabilitation, at six-month intervals, forced her to drop out of school. Jessie is enrolled in a general education program now and said she hopes her synthetic drug days are behind her as “just a stage.”
“I’m trying to stop, get on with my life,” she said.
Daniel Johnson, 21, wore a shirt to the protest that read, “Spice is Killin my Homies!” He said he’s been against the products for years.
“I’ve seen what it’s done to so many of my friends … they don’t function the same way anymore,” he said. “It takes a toll on a person’s mentality, makes them slower, dependent on it.”
Aside from longer-term effects, Johnson said he’s seen Spice and other products have immediate and scary consequences. One girl took two hits of Spice and suddenly collapsed unconscious.
“She passed out on her own lap and they couldn’t wake her up,” he said. “You never know how much you can consume and what can happen.”