At a special called meeting on Monday, Washington County’s Public Safety Committee unanimously voted to ask the Tennessee General Assembly to outlaw synthetic drugs statewide.
“This has become a pressing public health concern,” said Committee Chairman Roger Nave. “These products are targeting youth and we want to outlaw them.”
County Attorney John Rambo explained to the committee that while the county cannot ban a substance, it can request through a resolution that lawmakers in Nashville do so statewide. The resolution approved by the committee will go before the full commission next Monday.
Synthetic marijuana is a blend of herbs sprayed with chemicals that produce similar effects to those of marijuana when smoked. It is marketed under several brand names and sold as herbal incense, Rambo said. Sale of some of the products is legal in Tennessee; however, some states including Virginia have not only banned the specific chemical compounds that might be used, but also enforce a broadly worded provision that outlaws other substances drug manufacturers could use to circumvent the ban. Tennessee has made some attempts to ban products containing certain ingredients, but the products become legal again as soon as manufacturers change the specific ingredients banned to those not regulated, county officials said.
Commissioner Pete Speropulos said the county has a few routes to fix the issue, but none of them are quick.
“It won’t be a fast solution,” he said. “We can’t make the laws, but we can get moving to slow it down at a local level.”
At the meeting, committee members discussed one specific business in Gray that they said constituents were mentioning to commissioners and law enforcement officers. Nave said he was notified last week by constituents in the Gray community about the store Ultimate Smoke, located on Bobby Hicks Highway. He said Daniel Boone High School officials told him they had some concerns as well, and citizens near the shop had called commissioners Mark Larkey and Mike Ford with questions. Commissioners visited the shop, he said, to observe what was going on and being sold.
He also said committee members have spoken with the Washington County Sheriff’s Department, asking them to increase the police presence and visibility in the area.
Though much of the committee’s discussion focused on Ultimate Smoke, Nave said the ban would apply to all shops that sold the products. He mentioned other shops in Boones Creek and Johnson City.
“We are targeting anyone that would want to sell this,” Nave said. “We couldn’t single out one.”
Jason Catoe owns the Gray location of Ultimate Smoke, as well as another location in Kingsport. He said the attention the store receives is unwarranted, as many other convenience stores and markets sell the exact same products with ingredients Washington County is hoping the state will ban.
According to Catoe, police often park by his store in Kingsport, though he hasn’t seen any at the Gray location — but he said he would have no problem with their presence, as he is selling all legal products.
In Kingsport, the Board of Mayor and Aldermen last week unanimously passed the first reading of a synthetic drug ordinance that would ban the sale and possession of synthetic marijuana and bath salts within the city limits. The ban would carry a civil fine of $50, which is the maximum amount allowed under state law. A second reading also must pass before the ban takes effect.
Catoe is not concerned with a statewide ban.
“These (herbal incense) products have the same ingredients as Tylenol or shampoo. They’d have to ban Walmart too,” he said. “The state has already passed two bans and the DEA has as well. It’s a waste of money. I’ll always have something to sell.”
The building in Gray Catoe occupies is owned by Washington County Property Assessor Scott Buckingham, though the leasing of space is done through a real estate agent, Buckingham said.
According to Buckingham, it was “miscommunicated” to him that the shop would be a discount tobacco shop, and not what he called “strictly a head shop.” When he realized what was being sold, Buckingham said he approached Catoe and asked him to vacate the property if he continued to sell herbal incense, but was told the shop would be staying.
Catoe said the leasing agent asked if he could look at the store in Kingsport before the lease was signed, and that the store in Kingsport is very similar and sells the same products as Gray’s location.
“The landlord knew what the store would be,” Catoe said.
Buckingham said now that he does know what is being sold, he is having a lawyer look over the lease.
“I don’t like it, I don’t approve of it, and I’d love to be able to stop the sale of it,” Buckingham said. “But I can’t regulate what he sells if it’s legal.”