CLEARWATER — Clearwater police officers converged on four stores Thursday and seized the largest haul of synthetic marijuana in the city's history — more than 18,000 packets in one store alone.
"It's phenomenal," said Deputy Chief Sandra Wilson.
The raid came a year after Clearwater police notified businesses of a new state law banning more than 90 substances frequently found in synthetic marijuana. The state banned 22 additional substances in December.
A few months ago, tips trickled into the Police Department about illegal sales occurring at several businesses.
On Thursday, police with search warrants arrived at four businesses: Wanna Save, 1362 Cleveland St.; Hillcrest Store, 1391 Gulf-to-Bay Blvd.; Super Sonic, 724 S Missouri Ave.; and Danny's Tobacco Shop, 1621 Gulf-to-Bay Blvd.
Yellow crime scene tape surrounded the properties as about 20 officers, some working undercover, searched all four stores.
Four men were arrested during the raids: Remon Saber Aziz Farg, 33, Jean Bitar, 57, Christopher Dolu, 30, and Tarek Allababidi, who turns 20 today. All four were booked into the Pinellas County Jail on possession and sale of synthetic marijuana charges. Dolu faces an additional charge of distribution of synthetic marijuana.
At the Hillcrest convenience store, police seized 49 large black garbage bags as well as several cardboard boxes filled with the drugs — so much that a larger van was required to transport the drugs back to the police station. The 18,000 packets seized there have an estimated street value of $300,000.
Next door to the Wanna Save, P.J.'s Auto World general manager Bill Grant said it is important for police to stop the sale of synthetic drugs.
"It doesn't do any good for the economy, it doesn't do any good for Clearwater," he said.
The synthetics are sold in colorful packets under names such as Spice, Jazz and Mr. Happy Potpourri and sometimes are labeled as bath salts or incense. Authorities say the packaging and marketing appear to be aimed at children.
Overdoses and deaths from use of the synthetics have been reported nationwide. In January 2012, 19-year-old Logan Kushner drowned in a shallow creek in Clearwater's Kapok Park. A medical examiner later found that synthetic marijuana was a factor in his death. Police said he had been smoking Jazz.
"It's affecting our teens, our young adults," Wilson said Thursday. "The effects of synthetic marijuana are vast, so it's vitally important for us to try to eradicate this issue."
Contact Laura C. Morel at email@example.com or (727)445-4157.