LARGO — Just after 2 p.m. Wednesday, a customer tried to walk into the SuperAm convenience store at 1595 Seminole Blvd. He was greeted by a Largo police officer.
"Sorry sir, store's closed," the officer said.
Behind the cash register another officer in undercover gear — cargo pants, long-sleeved shirt and a ski-mask — emptied a plastic display case of glass pipes and a variety of herbal incenses into brown paper bags.
The SuperAm was one of 11 convenience stores Largo police raided Wednesday as part of a joint operation with Pinellas County Justice & Consumer Services. As of Wednesday evening, police arrested four store clerks and charged them with felonies. More arrests were expected.
The penalties imposed at the SuperAm, though, were minimal. No one was arrested and the store's owner received two $218 citations for violating little-known county ordinances banning the sale or display of drug paraphernalia or synthetic drugs in stores accessible to children.
But all the fuss of an organized raid was meant to send a message, according to police: Don't sell synthetic drugs, even if they're legal.
Over the past few weeks, undercover Largo officers have entered 24 gas stations and convenience stores in search of glass pipes, which are legal to sell as long as the seller doesn't know the pipe will be used to smoke an illegal drug. The undercover officers "made it abundantly clear" to clerks they wanted a pipe to smoke marijuana or cocaine, according to Largo Sgt. John Trebino, and at 11 stores the clerk sold the officer the pipe anyway, committing a felony.
Wednesday, Largo police returned to those stores to make arrests. As part of their investigations, they confiscated pipes and synthetic drugs as evidence.
Store owners received citations for breaking county ordinances barring the selling of drug paraphernalia and synthetic drugs in an area accessible to children.
This is the first time Largo police have written tickets using that ordinance, Trebino said, even though it has been on the books since 2006. The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office and St. Petersburg Police Department both write citations, representatives said Wednesday, but not many.
Synthetic drugs are products authorities say are designed by manufacturers to mimic the effects of illegal drugs like marijuana when smoked. Marketed as "herbal incense" or "potpourri," the products are packaged with "not for human consumption" labels, but sold over the counter at convenience stores, often in close proximity to glass pipes.
Some users have complained of paranoia, agitation, high blood pressure and heart rate, panic attacks and seizures. A 19-year-old Safety Harbor man drowned in January after smoking Jazz, one of the many legal products that was on sale at SuperAm.
Some compounds used to make synthetic drugs have been banned, but police say manufacturers are always one step ahead, tweaking their formulas to keep them legal.
At the SuperAm, the clerk police wanted to arrest wasn't there. J. Paul Melton, a county investigator, explained to store owner Ibrahim Saraeb that he could keep selling the pipes and synthetic drugs if he wanted to, but they'd have to be in an adults-only room; otherwise he would be in violation of the county ordinance.
Trebino, though, tried to convince Saraeb that he just shouldn't sell the stuff anymore. "Do you want this untested stuff going into people's systems?" Trebino told Saraeb, who declined to comment to the Tampa Bay Times. "You just have to make a moral call."
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Will Hobson can be reached at (727)-445-4167 or firstname.lastname@example.org.