HOLIDAY — Deputies say the store clerks had ample warning. The Pasco County Sheriff's Office had sent letters to convenience stores all over the county, alerting them to the new ordinances banning synthetic drugs. Last week, when they found the drugs at Food Land in Holiday, deputies issued fines and warnings. They arrested a co-owner and a clerk.
Still, the reports say, the store kept selling.
The undercover investigation at Food Land, 3444 Grand Blvd., started in January. Undercover detective Siobhan Maseda said she went into the store, where a clerk reached under the counter to grab synthetic marijuana to sell to her.
The mix tested in Florida Department of Law Enforcement labs contained XLR11, one of the cannabinoids listed in state and county ordinances as illegal, a felony to sell. During the investigation, Maseda said, she saw a handmade sign in the store that said something to the effect of "We do not sell drugs here."
On March 5, deputies arrested co-owner Yasser Elkalazani, 42, of Odessa; and clerk Nashat Shehata, 59, of Trinity.
On March 7, deputies went back and found more drugs, reports state.
They arrested co-owner Maha Hanna, 43, of Odessa on Tuesday and issued fines for every packet of synthetic marijuana at the store: 145 packs, $500 fine per packet, $72,500 altogether.
Maseda said she asked Hanna why they continued to sell the drugs after being warned and got a blank stare in response. She said Hanna told her she sold the drugs for the money.
Because of her undercover job, Maseda spoke behind a mask at a news conference Wednesday at the Sheriff's Office. Sgt. Bill Davis stood beside her and looked into news camera lenses as if they were the drug dealers themselves.
"If you're going to be that stupid and that blind to what the people in this community are telling you, then you deserve to be made an example of," he said. "For those of you in the community that think you're going to still do it, good luck to ya."
These three are among the first to be charged since state and county officials enacted more stringent measures.
Last November, the Pasco County Commission passed a first-of-its-kind ordinance banning the sale of such drugs based on their packaging and marketing, not their chemical components. Stores could be fined $500 for each packet of the drugs they carried.
A month later, Attorney General Pam Bondi added more chemicals to the list of substances that may not be sold in stores. Deputies made the rounds then to 130 stores and shops in Pasco County, including Food Land, deputies say, handing out letters about the laws and giving store clerks a day of amnesty before penalties began.
The arrests at Food Land were for the sale of chemicals on the latest attorney general's list, the Sheriff's Office said.
Over the past year, the Sheriff's Office has teamed up with the federal Drug Enforcement Administration to go after people manufacturing and selling "Spice" and other forms of synthetic marijuana. The drugs, often labeled as incense or plant food, are 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.
Officials have been working to regulate the drugs 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.
Reached at Food Land on Wednesday, a woman who strongly resembled Hanna's mug shot threatened a Tampa Bay Times reporter with a trespassing violation. She referred all questions to Clearwater defense lawyer Curtis Crider, whose secretary said he could not comment because he had not yet been hired on the case.
Alex Orlando can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6247.