On July 25 federal agents seized about 5 million packets of synthetic drugs, raw material to produce 13.6 million more and $36 million in cash while arresting more than 90 people in the first nationwide crackdown of synthetic drugs.We spoke with a criminal defence lawyer who thinks that most of the products and cash will be returned and many of those arrested will be exonerated.
Eric Vandervert, owner of Hot Spot Smoke Shop in Lake Worth, Fla., believes he is one of those people.
Vandervert’s head shop was raided during Operation Log Jam – police took the shop’s lab reports, security system, cash in the register and all of the herbal incense or “Spice” in the store. (They don’t carry bath salts.)
Vandervert, who was a narcotics officer for eight years, was not arrested but was handcuffed for the first time since police training and experienced the shock and fear of being the immediate target of law enforcement.
“It’s frustrating but there’s not much you can do, they’ve got you by the short hairs and I’ve been on the other side of that situation before so I understand it,” he said.
All this occurred despite the fact that Vandervert did everything he could to make sure that the herbal incense products he sold was compliant with the law.
“There’s no grey area – it’s black or white. If you’re on the black side it’s not a good place to be.”
Compliance involved making sure everyone in his store was 18 years old, requiring that every product in his store have a lab report listing its chemical makeup and a hologram certifying compliance with current laws, and tracking any upcoming bill being considered on the state or federal level.
“We’ll look at the bill that’s going through, match it with the lab reports of the products that we’re carrying and talk to the [manufacturer],” Vandervert said. “If it’s compliant, no problem. If it’s non-compliant, we basically get ready to remove it from the shelves.”
If an herbal incense product became non-compliant, Vandervert would “flush it down the toilet, rinse the bags and despise of the bags. So it’s just gone.”
Vandervert said the 40-50 different types of Spice displayed in his shop were actually compliant prior to the federal law passed July 10 that banned 31 chemicals commonly found in herbal incense because Florida had passed a similar law on March 23.
As the raid of his shop unfolded, Vandervert realised that the agents “were told, basically, ‘Get bath salts, get incense'” but they didn’t have a clear understanding of the different types of products.
“The thing about herbal incense is: That’s branding. People will steal that branding all day long,” Vandervert said. “I could have five different bags that all look like Scooby Snax but they all came from a different manufacturer and they all have a different blend inside.”
So there is a problem for everybody involved in the synthetic drug crackdown: Cops don’t know what they’re looking at – they have to send it to the DEA lab for testing – and retailers have to make sure that what’s inside their generically-branded bags is compliant.
“Based on our manufacturer in Tampa – and they’re still open and manufacturing today – our stuff is compliant. So now it’s just a waiting game. You go from a fear to an anger from 0 to 60 in three seconds.”
The DEA said they would test his products and be back in touch. Vandervert thinks “the apologies are going to come with them issuing an emergency ban on the other chemicals” so any products returned won’t be legal to sell.
At this point Vandervert wants to know why he was raided in the first place. Did agents enter his shop, buy products that were about to become illegal and justify the raid that way?
“Now it’s to the point of – OK, you said you had probable cause because that’s what it takes to obtain a search warrant, so what’s their probable cause?“
After seeing first hand how aggressive this crackdown is, Vandervert chose to close his head shop because he isn’t comfortable dealing with the harassment from police or the label of drug dealer.”West Palm Beach is basically the epicentre of the whole herbal incense industry with some of the largest manufacturers right here,” he said. “Even if it’s legal, they’re going to make it very difficult for you. So it’s just not worth the cost of business.”
There’s little doubt that it was good business. The Hot Spot was pulling in $6,000 a week before the raid – with 70 per cent of that coming from herbal incense – and has brought in about $600 total in the week since.
Vandervert didn’t have a problem selling it because it’s legal and “the law is black and white.”
“If it becomes an issue of somebody’s morals, they don’t answer to law enforcement for that,” he said. “If they decide to do something that’s against its intended purpose, that’s not my issue as long as they’re adults. They answer to themselves and their family and their friends, not me. “
The former Detroit federal liaison for narcotics suggested that law enforcement go after the gas stations that sell Spice to minors and illegitimate retailers who buy and sell their products without properly complying with current laws.
“If the government says [the raids are] for kids, then go to the source of the problem.”
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