IOWA CITY, Iowa — The impact of a recent federal raid at three Iowa City tobacco stores appears to be significant, according to police. The stores were targeted during a national synthetic drug crackdown against manufacturers, wholesalers and retailers in early May.
“Right now, we’re not seeing [synthetic drugs],” said Iowa City police Sgt. Paul Batcheller, who helps supervise overnight operations. “There’s definitely a clamp on it for right now.”
Before the raid Iowa City police had noted people driving in from across southeast Iowa overnight to purchase synthetic marijuana, or K2, which is often sold as incense or plant food.
“Muscatine, Burlington, Keokuk,” said Batcheller. “Buying 30 to 40 packets at a time.”
Drug Enforcement Administration agents along with local police conducted the raids at Zombies Tobacco Accessories, Pipe Dreamz and Happy Daze. All three stores are located in the downtown area.
DEA officials have not yet released the specifics of the raid or said exactly what they seized from Iowa City shops. Nationally officials said they executed a total of 200 search warrants, arrested 150 people, seized hundreds of thousands of synthetic drug packets and seized over $20 million in cash and assets during what they called “Project Synergy Phase II.”
“There is absolutely no quality control on the manufacturing of these illicit substances,” said Special Agent In Charge James Shroba, who heads the DEA St. Louis Division, which covers Iowa. “The user is really taking their life in their own hands every time they buy one of these substances.”
DEA officials say producers often tweak their formula in an attempt to keep a product legal, although still dangerous. Prosecutors still can have a case if the substances are proven to be chemically similar to a schedule I or II controlled substance. The DEA also has the ability to use their emergency scheduling authority to combat these substances.
“These substances are not legal and anyone who tells you they are, believe me when they end up in jail, they will be fully aware of the criminal activity they were participating in,” Shroba said.
Since the raids both Pipe Dreamz and Happy Daze have remained closed. Zombies has reopened, although it does not appear to be open overnight at this time. All attempts to contact owners, both on phone and in person, have failed. According to the US Attorney’s office in Des Moines, none of the registered business owners are facing federal charges at this time.
While the raid has apparently proven to be effective, it’s only a matter of time before the drugs return to the area, according to Batcheller.
“I’m sure it will loosen back up, it always does,” he said.
Federal code, which includes stricter penalties, makes it easier for federal authorities to police synthetic drugs, said Batcheller.
State Senator Joe Bolkcom of Iowa City said lawmakers have acted quickly to ban more than 60 synthetic compounds in recent years. Lawmakers have also moved to allow the Iowa Board of Pharmacy to ban a substance by rule if the federal government does so.
“The feds are staying maybe a half step ahead of Iowa,” Bolkcom said. “It’s been a real challenge for us, every year we’ve passed new bills that outlaw the next generation of synthetic drugs.”
Bolkcom said he feels Iowa’s laws are very strong and hopes to continue strengthening them, although he said another solution should be considered.
“We should think about decriminalizing [real marijuana] and making it more of a civil penalty as opposed to putting people in jail for the use of small amounts of marijuana,” he said. “I think the growth of the synthetic marijuana market is largely the result of our failed policies around marijuana.”