An investigation of two convenience stores, across the street from each other in a high crime corridor of Edgewood, resulted in the confiscation of suspected synthetic marijuana, drug paraphernalia and cash during raids last month, the Harford County Sheriff's Office said Tuesday.
No charges have been filed in conjunction with the seizures, the Sheriff's Office said in a statement, but its investigation is continuing and charges are expected against store owners and their employees.
Sheriff's Office Capt. Lee Dunbar, who heads the Harford County Task Force that conducted the raids, said the suspected synthetic marijuana products seized, commonly known as "Spice," were sent out for analysis at the Maryland State Police Laboratory; however, field tests by task force members following the raids confirmed the presence of compounds, or "analogs," that make them illegal.
Dunbar said the preliminary findings from the investigation have been turned over to the Harford County State's Attorney's Office. He could give no timetable for any charges being brought.
According to the Sheriff's Office statement, on June 11, members of the Harford County Task Force, working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food Nutrition Service Investigative Branch, executed simultaneous search and seizure warrants at Mystik Mart at 1713 Hanson Road, and at Royal Lands at 1712 Hanson Road, "in reference to the distribution of synthetic marijuana, is a Schedule I controlled dangerous substance commonly referred to as 'Spice.'"
The Hanson Road corridor, between Routes 24 and 152, where the two stores are, is one of Harford County's highest crime areas, known for its history of drug dealing, gang activity and multiple homicides, the latest which occurred on June 19, when a man was found fatally shot in the Windsor Valley-Meadowood neighborhood. Several non-fatal stabbings were also reported in the nights following the fatal shooting that Sheriff's Office investigators have since said may be related.
Complaints spurred probe
The task force began its investigation of the two convenience stores in March after receiving numerous tips and complaints that each store, operating independently, was allegedly selling Spice to juveniles and adults, according to the Sheriff's Office statement.
The tips led to undercover purchases of Spice at both locations and, ultimately, a search and seizure warrant was issued for each business, the statement continued.
At the Mystik Mart, task force members recovered five packages of synthetic marijuana, totaling 20 grams, which was concealed under the counter, according to the Sheriff's Office.
The business also allegedly sold an array of drug paraphernalia related items, including more than 60 marijuana smoking pipes, pipe screens, 13 marijuana grinders, approximately 40 glass case pens – typically used in a conversion to crack pipes, copper crack pipe filter pads and 20 digital scales used to weigh drugs for distribution, the Sheriff's Office said.
The street value of all seized items totaled approximately $2,255, and an additional $5,924 in cash was seized, the Sheriff's Office said.
The search and seizure warrant at the Royal Lands recovered 37 packages of synthetic marijuana, totaling 148 grams, which was concealed under the counter, the Sheriff's Office statement continued, adding that the business also allegedly sold an array of drug paraphernalia behind the counter "which was systematically placed for recognition by drug dealers and users."
The paraphernalia in question included 39 marijuana smoking pipes, 90 "Love Roses" – typically used in conversion to crack pipes, copper crack pipe filter pads, six marijuana grinders, seven digital scales and 530 packages of glass bags of various colors and sizes used specifically to package drugs for distribution, as well as "a bulk package of single edge razor blades for packaging drugs for resale," the Sheriff's Office said.
The street value of all sized product was approximately $5,340, the Sheriff's Office said, and an additional $5,059 in cash was seized.
EBT cards allegedly involved
Additional tips alleged that the Royal Lands store was also allegedly accepting food stamp/EBT (electronic benefits cards) as payment for the allegedly illegal substances, the Sheriff's Office said.
"At the scene, evidence revealed that the owner was also committing additional theft and fraud of the food stamp/EBT program, using the EBT system as an ATM with a 100 percent surcharge," the Sheriff's Office statement continued. "It is estimated that the amount of fraud occurring at the business over the course of a year would amount to around $169,000 in these types of charges with the business/owner keeping over $99,000 for making the transactions from the food stamp/EBT program."
Charges related to drug possession with intent to distribute, the distribution of synthetic marijuana, possessing drug paraphernalia with the intent to distribute and maintaining a common nuisance are pending against several store clerks and the ownership of both businesses, the Sheriff's Office said.
Additional theft and fraud charges are also being pursued against the owner of the Royal Lands store; the Department of Agriculture, Food Nutrition Service Investigative Branch is also seeking to permanently suspend benefit program privileges for the business, the statement added.
According to Dunbar, any charges related to selling illegal substances and/or drug paraphernalia would be brought in state courts, while any involving food stamps or electronic benefits cards would most likely be federal in nature.
Dunbar said both stores had operated with impunity.
"We believe a large portion of their profits was coming from the sale of illegal substances, paraphernalia and the improper use of ATM/EBT cards," he said in a phone interview.
Dunbar said the search and seizures were conducted without interference from the business owners or their employees and, to his knowledge, both stores are continuing to operate as gas stations and convenience stores. He said it was the task force's objective to "shut down" their alleged illegal activities.
A clerk who answered the phone at Royal Lands Tuesday afternoon said the owner had left for the day but he would pass on a phone message from a reporter. Mystic Mart could not be reached by telephone Tuesday.
Mounting Spice concerns
Last winter, Joseph V. Ryan Jr., manager of the Harford County Office of Drug Control Policy, told members of the Jarrettsville Community Council that Harford is plagued by excessive abuse of marijuana and emerging synthetic drugs, in addition to having the state's fourth highest rate of opiate-related deaths.
He listed abuse of marijuana and the emerging synthetic drugs, made to mimic the effects of marijuana and other drugs, right after heroin among the top five abused substances locally, along with alcohol and prescription drugs.
The Sheriff's Office began making its concerns known last summer about Spice and other synthetic marijuana type drugs. Dunbar said last month's search and seizures in Edgewood were not the first involving Spice and likely won't be the last.
The Sheriff's Office statement noted the Harford County Task Force "continues to receive tips and complaints about gas stations and convenience stores throughout the county selling spice and also accepting food stamp/EBT benefits for these transactions of illegal controlled dangerous substances."
Dunbar called Spice compounds "very dangerous," noting their manufacture is "loosely regulated" and that "nobody knows what they put on it."
He said there have been instances where young people have smoked Spice and gone into comas, suffered burned lungs and other serious physical and mental effects.
"They have no idea what has been sprayed on it when they light it and smoke it," he said.
The Harford County Task Force is made up of officers from the Harford County Sheriff's Office, Maryland State Police, Aberdeen Police Department, Bel Air Police Department, Havre de Grace Police Department, Drug Enforcement Administration and the Harford County States Attorney's Office, according to the Sheriff's Office.