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Store fined for sales of synthetics

(Staff photo by Ashley Saari)

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A Rindge store has been charged a $2,500 fine by the state’s Liquor Commission, after two violations related to the sale of packets of synthetic chemicals containing banned substances, according to Liquor Commission officials.

In an interview Friday, N.H. Liquor Commission Director of Enforcement and Licensing James Wilson said that JM North of the Border on Route 202 in Rindge has had two violations in the past year relating to the store’s sale of packets of chemicals marketed with labels such as “potpourri” “incense” or “spice.” While they are labeled as not for human consumption, “herbal incense” products of this type are known to be ingested by smoking or brewing into a tea, because they contain synthetic cannabinoids.

Synthetic cannabinoids are chemically engineered substances similar to tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the active ingredient in marijuana. Many individual chemicals in the synthetic drugs have been banned in the state and nationally, but producers get around the law by manufacturing new formulas to keep the drugs legal. If there are no banned chemicals, the product may legally be sold to those over the age of 18. They are marketed with bright colors, names such as “Sexy Monkey,” “California Chronic,” “Scooby Snax” or “Mr. Happy,” or use cartoon characters on their packaging.

North of the Border is owned by the Mortada family of Rindge, who also own its sister store, West of the Border; they recently purchased the former Fogg’s Mini-Mart at the intersection of Route 119 and Route 202, which is now operated under the name Hometown Irving. Hometown Irving successfully obtained a liquor license from the commission on Aug. 5, said Wilson.

The violations were first brought to the attention of the Liquor Commission via an inspection of the store last year, according to Wilson.

“There was a complaint that came in, and an investigator went in and did an inspection. During that inspection, she obtained samples. A number tested positive for controlled substances,” said Wilson.

In August 2013, the N.H. Liquor Commission tested eight packets of spice, and found that six of them contained banned substances, according to Wilson. At that time, the store was issued a administrative notice of agency actions, which Wilson described as being similar to a court summons.

In January, the Liquor Commission conducted another inspection at North of the Border, and again, tested multiple packets of synthetic marijuana. Of the 11 packets tested, nine of them contained banned substances. Again, the store was issued a notice of agency action, said Wilson.

The Commission adjudicated both issues simultaneously, and the violations resulted in a $2,500 administrative fine. The commission suspended $500 of that fine for 12 months, on the condition that the store obtain no similar violations. The owners of North of the Border were also ordered to attend mandatory managerial training within 30 days of the adjudication of the case.

Wilson said that the Commission is being vigilant about the sale of synthetic drugs.

“As we encounter these products, we’re going to be looking at them, and making sure those products are in compliance with the law,” he said.

Currently, said Wilson, there are no other criminal or administrative charges pending from the N.H. Liquor Commission against North of the Border. He said he could not speak for additional agencies that might intend to bring charges.

Attempts to contact the Mortadas for comment were unsuccessful by press time Monday.

Following a Rindge Crime Watch meeting in which concerns about the use of synthetic drugs were voiced in July 2013, former Rindge Police Chief Frank Morrill said he planned to ask the owners of North of the Border and West of the Border to voluntarily pull the items from their stores. At the time, Jamal Mortada, co-owner of the stores, said in an interview with the Ledger-Transcript that he was willing to remove the products if police asked, even if they were legal to sell. At the end of July 2013, according to an interview with Morrill, Morrill met with the owners of the stores who informed him they would stop selling synthetic drugs as of that week.

Local ordinances or state?

“Spice” caught the attention of the Rindge Crime Watch group last year when residents reported seeing wrappers for the packets containing the synthetics littered on the side of the road. In July 2013, synthetic drugs were a topic of conversation in both Rindge in Keene, as both communities considered forgoing the long wait for state or national legislation and putting in place a town ordinance banning the sale of synthetic marijuana.

But for Rindge, the idea of an ordinance just didn’t pan out, said Crime Watch President and Select Board member Bob Hamilton in a recent interview. The problem, he said, is the same as it is on the state and national levels: Keeping up with the ever-changing tide of chemicals used to create the drugs.

Rindge Crime Watch had looked to borrow from a proposed ordinance being worked on in Keene at the time, but Hamilton said the extent of the ordinance seemed beyond what the town could enforce.

“We looked into what Keene was trying to do, and it was quite extensive. Almost to the level of what the state is trying to do. I don’t think at the local level it’s really feasible,” he said. “When you ban one of the ingredients, they just introduce something new, so I don’t know how it would be stopped.”

The topic had come up again for Crime Watch after Aug. 14, when Governor Maggie Hassan issued a state of emergency after a specific synthetic cannabanoid, known as “Smacked!” was linked to dozens of people in the Manchester area having medical emergencies and seizures related to overdoses. Hamilton said he simply wanted people to be aware of the issue, and to keep an eye out for the specific branding of “Smacked!”

“We’re just hoping that people will be responsible and not sell them,” said Hamilton of synthetic drugs. “It’s still legal to sell, but Hannaford, Market Basket and Walmart don’t sell them.”

State of emergency

Hassan issued a statement on Aug. 14 that triggered the Department of Health and Human Services to investigate, isolate or quarantine, and require the destruction of the bubblegum flavor of “Smacked!”

The governor’s issuance of a state of emergency came after at least 44 people in the Manchester and Concord area experienced serious medical reactions, with at least 20 having to be transported to a hospital.

“These products pose a serious threat to public health, especially to young people, and it is our responsibility to do whatever we can to combat the recent rash of overdoses,” Hassan said in a press release. “In consultation with the N.H. Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, public health officials in the N.H. Department of Health and Human Services and the Attorney General’s Office, I have declared a State of Emergency so that we can move quickly to stop the sale of this dangerous substance that has caused an outbreak of serious overdoses.”

According to the release, samples of at least two other brands of synthetic cannabinoids, “Crazy Monkey” and “Green Giant,” have tested positive for controlled substances. While those brands were not related to overdoses, the release urged stores to remove the synthetic cannabinoids from their shelves.

“It’s very important that individuals be made aware that use of this product poses serious and immediate danger to their personal health,” Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Nicholas Toumpas said in the release. “We strongly recommend the public avoid any use of this product, and we will work with local police departments as quickly as possible to put the quarantine into effect.”

Attorney General Joseph Foster said, “As we have seen in recent days in Manchester and Concord, the misuse of products like ‘Smacked!’ can cause significant and adverse health risks. Therefore, we are strongly recommending that merchants who have similar products remove them from their shelves and destroy their current inventory. Retailers that continue to knowingly sell these dangerous or illegal products are placed on notice that they could be held responsible for harm caused to a user of the product.”

The governor’s declaration will last until Sept. 4, unless terminated earlier or extended by further order.

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