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Thursday, Apr 17, 2014
Crime & Courts

Pot was fake, but $1.2 million fine for store is real

Published:   |   Updated: January 22, 2014 at 06:18 AM

TAMPA — Hillsborough County’s code enforcement board recently upheld a $1.2 million fine _ the largest in county history _ against a convenience store for selling synthetic drugs.

The board on Friday denied a motion to throw out the fine -- $500 for each of 2,506 packets purchased between March and July at the Citgo/Country Food Store at 12020 E. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. in Seffner.

The board also denied a petition to stay additional fines of $1,000 a day while the case is appealed in Circuit Court.

Lawyers for the business that runs the store, Nasim Investment LLC, say they are appealing the denial of the hold on daily fines. They are also preparing a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the ordinance banning synthetic marijuana that was passed by the county commission last February.

Attorney Scott Boardman, representing the business owners, said county commissioners were trying to score political points by passing an overly tough ordinance that was not needed. Boardman said there are state statutes that address synthetic drugs sales.

“It’s all a knee-jerk grab of the low-hanging, political fruit,” Boardman said.

Boardman said the business owner, Tariq Hammad, and the property owner, Clifford Gatewood, did not know banned substances were being sold in the store. The business owner was not notified until August that the store was being fined for the display and sale of synthetic marijuana products.

But code enforcement operations manager Jim Blinck said three Crime Stopper tips had been received reporting that the banned substances were being sold at the store. The county’s Consumer Protection Agency sent the store a letter saying that synthetic drugs, labeled under names like Mr. Happi, Scooby Snax and Mind Trip, had been banned by the commission and were not to be displayed or sold. Violations would be fined at $500 per package, the letter said.

Blinck said that even after the $1.2 million fine was imposed at a September code enforcement board hearing, undercover deputies continued to buy banned substances at the store.

“We have a case coming back to the board in February for buys made after that first hearing,” Blinck said.

Synthetic marijuana is usually made of tea leaves soaked in chemicals and is meant to mimic the high obtained from THC, the active ingredient in marijuana. But the product can cause anxiety, nausea, vomiting, elevated blood pressure and hallucinations.

Commissioner Les Miller pushed for local action on synthetic drugs, which he said were “running rampant.” The sheriff’s office, which noted increasing number of teen-agers overdosing on the drugs, gave its blessing to the local effort.

The county attorney’s office decided a local law would be hard to enforce as a criminal violation so it made selling the drugs a civil infraction. The state Legislature had banned 142 chemical compounds used in synthetic marijuana, but manufacturers got around the law by tweaking the chemical compounds.

But Boardman argues that the Legislature has changed the state statutes dealing with synthetic marijuana to counter the drug manufacturers’ maneuvering, including giving the state Attorney General rule-making power to change the list of chemicals that are illegal.

“Even that wasn’t enough and the Legislature recognized it,” Boardman said. “So they came up with another statute. It supersedes the local ordinance.”

Boardman compared the synthetic marijuana ordinance to county efforts in 2012 to close down clinics supposedly tied to staged-accident fraud. Law enforcement officials claimed the clinics, which derived most or all of their income from the state’s required personal injury protection insurance, provided no treatment. But the clinics billed the maximum $10,000 per patient for treating “victims” of phony accidents.

Boardman and attorney Luke Lirot, representing a group of medical clinics, filed a lawsuit arguing the county’s staged accident fraud ordinance was unconstitutional. A circuit judge blocked the law and his ruling was upheld on appeal.

“It’s old wine in new bottles,” Boardman said of the county crackdown on the synthetic drugs.

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