- Hannah Sayle
Late last month, it seemed as though the Memphis head-shop industry was up in smoke after a Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) raid led to public nuisance closures and arrests of shop owners, but most of the affected stores have now reopened their doors.
The DEA swept through Shelby County on June 26th as part of a nationwide crackdown on illegal synthetic drugs, resulting in more than 40 arrests and the closure of 14 local businesses.
The bust took place in more than 35 states and was labeled "Project Synergy," the culmination of a two-year investigation into the proliferation and sale of synthetic drugs. The investigation focused primarily on synthetic cannabinoids (a synthetic marijuana often sold as "spice" or "K2") and synthetic cathinones (a chemical analogue for methamphetamines, better known as "bath salts.") Both of these drugs can cause hallucinations and paranoia, and in the case of bath salts, heart attacks and strokes.
Individuals, business owners, and employees suspected of being involved in what investigators allege is a multi-million-dollar international synthetic drug network were indicted on federal charges ranging from conspiracy to possess and distribute to money laundering.
But while those federal cases will likely play out over the next few years, many of the temporary injunctions that closed down 14 local businesses have been processed and settled, and most of the shops in question are back in business.
The 14 local stores shut down as public nuisances on June 26th included Humidor Tobacco and Beer on Houston Levee; Tobacco Etc. and Friendly Quick Stop on Stage; Tobacco World on Quince; Buddy's Smoke Shop on Whitten Road; Whatever and the Highland Smoke Shop on Highland; Tobacco for Less and Tobacco Hutt on Summer; A&P Tobacco Shop on Austin Peay; Wizard's on Madison; Tobacco Superstore on Winchester; and Tobacco Zone and Tobacco Box on Germantown Parkway.
As of July 3rd, Whatever, Highland Smoke Shop, A&P Tobacco, Tobacco World, Humidor Tobacco and Beer, Friendly Quick Stop, Tobacco Superstore, Tobacco Zone, Tobacco for Less, and Tobacco Hutt have been permitted to resume operations, on the condition that they cease selling synthetic drugs and pay a $2,650 fine. As of July 9th, Wizard's and Tobacco Box were free to open their doors. According to Paul Hagerman, assistant district attorney, the owners of Buddy's and Tobacco Etc. have both suggested they will close their businesses for good.
As to why some stores were authorized to resume business on July 3rd and others were forced to wait another week, Hagerman said three stores — Buddy's, Wizard's, and Tobacco Box — were punished more harshly because their employees acknowledged to undercover officers that the substances they were selling were illegal. Hagerman says the offending employees at those three stores have all been terminated.
"The important part of this whole thing was to get the message out to stores that they are responsible for what they sell," Hagerman said. "And of course, the federal charges were a big message."