HOLIDAY — Rhonda Swetland saw the cruisers surrounding the convenience store next door and started clapping.
"We were waiting for this to happen for a long, long time," said Swetland, who owns Kids' Stop-N-Play day care center. The convenience store next door, Pure Gas, at 5317 Mile Stretch Drive, was raided Thursday for allegedly selling synthetic marijuana, commonly known as Spice. Swetland said people loiter outside the store all day smoking, making the area unsafe for herself and the 75 children at her day care. Swetland said she's called the Sheriff's Office every day for weeks asking for help.
"We are happy," Swetland said after watching the store's owner, Basil Almanluk, being placed handcuffed in a cruiser and boxes of seized Spice packets being carted outside by deputies.
Pure Gas was one of 15 locations throughout the county hit Thursday by the Pasco County Sheriff's Office in the agency's latest effort to wipe out the Spice market. Deputies had a list of 21 suspects. They arrested 14 on Thursday and continued to search for the remaining seven.
"They are killers, that's what they are," Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco said of those selling the synthetic drugs.
"They are killers in our community — they are killing families, they are killing kids."
In recent months, the Sheriff's Office has teamed up with the Drug Enforcement Administration to go after people manufacturing Spice, which is marketed as incense or plant food, is widely used as a narcotic, especially by teenagers. The drugs have been linked to delusional, violent behavior and, in some cases, permanent psychosis and deadly overdoses, authorities said.
Federal, state and local officials are working to regulate the drugs, sold legally in convenience stores, by banning some of the chemicals used. But some manufacturers simply drop a banned ingredient and replace it with a similar, but still legal, compound.
What the Sheriff's Office did Thursday was new: It doesn't matter if the banned chemicals were in the Spice packets being sold at these stores, authorities said. In the past few weeks, undercover detectives went to these stores and asked to buy something that would get them high and then these store clerks offered them Spice, usually brought out from a container kept behind the counter.
This is how the Sheriff's Office believes it can nab these sellers: By charging them with possessing and selling imitation controlled substances. The agency says these clerks sold something they told a consumer would get them high, when these drugs are not actually a controlled substance.
Nocco called it a "unique" approach to "pressure" store owners and employees.
"I would rather us go out there and attack the issue than keep saying there's nothing we can do about it," Nocco said. "We are going to keep finding a way to arrest these individuals."
In one video released by the agency, Shrenik D. Mode, a clerk at a Marathon station at 8549 Old County Road 54 in New Port Richey, told undercover agents that one brand of Spice is "like a bomb."
"This is like awesome," he said. "I'm dead serious, trust me."
Nocco said another clerk used a different sales tactic, saying, "I'm high on it right now!"
The attack on Spice began months ago, with deputies hand-delivering letters to businesses selling the synthetic drugs, asking them to discontinue selling it. The agency also began a sticker program praising stores that stopped selling the drugs.
Sheriff's Lt. Chuck Balderstone hopes that what happened Thursday is enough to end this.
"I pray that this push right here will convince these people not to sell this stuff and we can get this stuff off the streets," Balderstone said.
But, if it's not, "if they continue to sell it after this first wave," Balderstone said, "we'll be right back out again."
Erin Sullivan can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6229.