By JOSH NEWTON
Members of the District 27 Drug Task Force and the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics served a state search warrant Tuesday at a local business known for selling synthetic cannabinoids marketed as incense.
Authorities said they seized a large number of the products and several smoking devices commonly associated with the use of illicit drugs.
Investigators spent much of the day inside Outer Zone, looking through various forms of what is often referred to as “spice” or “incense.” Product packages are typically labeled “not for human consumption” and frequently indicate the products are “100 percent legal” and contain no prohibited substances. But police said those statements aren’t always true.
State officials said the products are often snorted or smoked for a euphoric high as strong or stronger than marijuana or cocaine. But law enforcement officials say the side effects of the chemicals can be much worse, and even lead to death. While it isn’t illegal to sell the products as incense or potpourri, it is illegal to sell them if the intended use is for human consumption, police said.
“The Legislature has been working to close loopholes in the law,” said District Attorney Brian Kuester. “But over the past few years, manufacturers of these products have been successful at changing the compound enough to avoid law enforcement.”
Authorities said an investigation into Outer Zone’s sale of the products led to the issuance of a state search warrant by a judge. Hours later, authorities left the store with boxes of products.
No arrests were made in relation to the search warrant, but agents said the investigation is ongoing and arrests are possible.
Not long after authorities went to Outer Zone, a mail carrier arrived with a large box that reportedly contained about $14,000 worth of the synthetic products that would have netted profits of around $21,000, a 150-percent markup.
Authorities said the business receives a shipment at least once a week, and some packages are often marked up to 10 times their wholesale cost or more.
Cars full of potential customers pulled into the business’s parking lot as authorities searched Outer Zone. Many of them got out of their vehicles to go in the store, despite the presence of several police and their patrol cruisers outside. Most were interviewed by police about their use of synthetic cannabinoids, and many of them first insisted they buy the products only to use as home incense, but later admitted they smoke the products frequently.
One woman drove up to the store with a baby in her car and asked if the shop was open. Officers explained that the business was closed, and then spoke with the woman about her use of the so-called incense. The woman said she uses the products as incense, but also has ingested it.
Another woman walked up just minutes later and initially said she was there out of curiosity.
She was questioned and at first said she doesn’t use the synthetic products, but later admitted she visits the store several times a week, or when she has extra money.
Officers asked how often the woman smokes the synthetic products, and she told them “not enough.”
“Probably more times than I can count,” she said. “Maybe twice, three times a week.”
Customers continued to pull up to the store and were subsequently interviewed by police; only one was arrested on an unrelated outstanding warrant.
After authorities left Tuesday evening, several of the same customers returned to the store parking lot.
“They said they are shut down,” one woman told others as she walked away from the business’s door.
Cindy Farmer, coordinator of the Cherokee County Drug Court, has been fighting to rid Tahlequah of the products for years. She arrived outside Outer Zone Tuesday afternoon as officers were searching inside.
“It’s a long time coming,” said Farmer. “It’s progress. Obviously it takes time to address these problems and to get all of the key people involved and working together for the same goal. I deal with the effects of these products daily. As soon as we list something, manufacturers go in, tweak a molecule, and they keep creating these new products with just a small change.”
Kuester said investigators also conducted a similar operation at a business in Roland Tuesday.