By JOSH NEWTON
Three months after local and state authorities raided Outer Zone in Tahlequah and seized a large amount of synthetic cannabinoids, that same business found itself a target once again.
Members of the district attorney drug task forces from District 27 and District 13 gathered in Tahlequah and served a warrant at Outer Zone just after 11 a.m. Thursday.
District 27 DTF Investigator Dave Rathbone said in a search-warrant affidavit that he and other agents began to receive complaints in mid-January that Outer Zone had reopened for business in Tahlequah.
When agents served a warrant at the shop last November, they learned the business was making about $21,000 in profits on boxed shipment of “spice” – which cost about $14,000 – and typically went through at least one box per week.
Shortly after investigators swarmed Outer Zone Thursday, DTF agents traveled to Blasters, another Tahlequah business known for selling the products, and served a warrant there. A third bust occurred at a Shell convenience store in Wagoner.
Employees of the businesses were caught off-guard as marked and unmarked police vehicles mustered outside the shops. At Blasters, two customers were waiting outside for the business’ doors to open. A sign on the door indicated the store opens at 11 a.m., but at nearly 11:30, the doors were still locked.
Agents peered into the windows of the Blasters building and saw an employee inside. He was ordered to open the door for police, and investigators later said it appeared he was inside the store, smoking some of the products.
Aside from spice, agents were also sent to gather money, cash registers, computers, bank records and other information from the three businesses hit Thursday.
“Kids and adults alike are smoking these products, and it’s having horrible consequences – anywhere from maybe vomiting, to their kidneys shutting down, or maybe even death,” said District 27 District Attorney Brian Kuester. “Certainly there have been some grave medical conditions as a result of this.”
Now, local law enforcement agents promise their efforts to halt sales of the products will continue.
“We have no intention of stopping until these products are no longer sold in District 27,” said Kuester. “We just need to keep on fighting until [spice] has been eradicated.”
Synthetic cannabinoids are often snorted or smoked in an effort to experience a euphoric high that is often as strong or stronger than marijuana or cocaine.
The products are legal when sold to be used as incense or potpourri, but investigators said it is illegal to sell the products if the intended use is for human consumption. The “high” received from using the spice is an effect of the numerous chemicals sprayed onto the product.
Kuester believes the businesses selling incense know customers intend to ingest it, and know it’s illegal. He pointed out the same businesses offering spice products also offer rolling papers and smoking pipes for sale.
“They certainly know how it’s being used,” said Kuester. “It’s not a secret anymore of the horrendous consequences that ingesting these products has. So if anyone says they are unaware these products are illegal, I just don’t think that’s legitimate. I hope seeing the police cars in front of these businesses send a message. People need to know we’re going to keep fighting against this.”
In his affidavit for a search warrant, Rathbone said an increase in the use of synthetic cannabinoids in Cherokee County has led to “more and more people being arrested for public intoxication, [driving under the influence], assault and battery and numerous other crimes.” Complaints about the use of the products have also risen locally.
Northeastern State University Police Sgt. Jim Flores said officers on campus support the removal of spice from the community.
“They are damaging and killing our youth,” said Flores. “We have noticed a significant increase in the number of people who use these substances on campus over the past two years. There have been a few instances on campus where individuals requested an ambulance because they felt they were having a heart attack or going to die after smoking K2.”
Flores said in nearly every arrest made involving the use or possession of spice at NSU, the suspect knew the substances are illegal for human consumption.
“Blasters is right across the street from our Tahlequah campus and because of that, it has made it a lot easier for people to simply walk across the street to purchase the substances or paraphernalia,” said Flores. “I wouldn’t say there have been significant increases solely because of Blasters; I do believe that businesses in Tahlequah and all across America who sell these dangerous substances are together responsible for the increase in the number of cases involving K2, spice, bath salts, etceteras.”
Flores called it “sad” that the stores selling the products “know their customers are buying the items and hide behind the illusion that they are selling legal incense.”
“These business owners – or ‘drug dealers,’ as I call them – only care about making money, and that is tragic, to say the least,” said Flores.
Cherokee County Juvenile Drug Court Director Cindy Farmer lauded Thursday’s events. Farmer has worked for years to educate community members on the dangers of spice and to introduce ordinances in the city that would prohibit the products from being sold. She’s set to discuss the matter before city councilors next Monday.
“I am so very grateful to law enforcement officers who are working to protect our community from these dangerous products,” said Farmer. “I encourage parents to become proactive in obtaining awareness of the dangers these products pose.”