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INDIAN LAND – Amidst the signs for hookahs and electronic cigarettes, a small, handwritten note was the only sign anything was amiss at a Panhandle smoke shop Friday, June 28.
Taped to the front door of High Life Smoke Shop, located in the Palmetto Commons shopping center off Charlotte Highway (U.S. 521), the note read “Closed due to inventory check. Will open later. Sorry for inconvenience.”
But according to Lancaster County Sheriff Barry Faile, there was a lot more going on at the store than a routine inventory check.
As part of a joint operation between the sheriff’s office and the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, investigators served search warrants on the business the morning of Wednesday, June 26.
Faile said the operation, during which inventory was seized and arrests were made, was part of “Project Synergy,” a national crackdown on synthetic drugs.
“We’ve been doing undercover operations over the last few months,” Faile said. “First we did some undercover buys and then (on Wednesday) we seized quite a bit of stuff and the owners were arrested in Charlotte.”
Both Faile and 6th Circuit Solicitor Doug Barfield were on hand for the serving of the search warrants at the Indian Land store Wednesday.
“We’ve been looking for synthetic marijuana and bath salts. The big thing going up there was Abracadabra, a synthetic marijuana,” Faile said. “The stuff seized yesterday has to be tested and then the courts will make a ruling, but we want to do everything in our power to shut this stuff down.”
Faile said at least two of the business’ owners were arrested as part of the operation, though he did not have names, charges or information about what was seized from the store. He referred all questions about the specifics of the search and arrests to the office of U.S. Attorney Bill Nettles.
Beth Drake, spokeswoman for Nettles’ office, confirmed Thursday that a large number of search and arrest warrants had been served, but could not provide the names in the Indian Land store arrests.
“It looks like five people are named as owning a shop of that name, with one from Mooresville (N.C.) and the others from Charlotte,” Drake said, though she did not provide those names.
According to a recent advertisement for High Life Smoke Shop, the owners have nine locations spread across the Carolinas. They include stores in Indian Land and Columbia, as well five stores in Charlotte and locations in Gastonia and Cornelius, N.C.
The ad also detailed the opening of a new store in Asheville, N.C., that was scheduled to open Saturday, June 29.
Drake said the arrest warrants were served in North Carolina, while search warrants were served in South Carolina.
“So the people arrested would make an appearance in a North Carolina court, while the seizures from the South Carolina stores would be prosecuted in South Carolina,” she said.
Though Drake could not comment on the specifics, she did explain the process of the months-long investigation.
“In this case, there was a furor over designer drugs and synthetic drugs,” she said. “Young people think these drugs are safe, thinking they can get high without it getting traced in their urine. But they don’t understand the dangers.”
She said Project Synergy was designed to track down and arrest both the developers and sellers of the synthetic drugs.
“Our local DEA agent coordinated nationally, looking at who manufactured the drugs, and there was also an international aspect as well,” Drake said.
She said the DEA submitted its findings and warrant requests to magistrate judges in each targeted area. The judges issued rulings so authorities could make the arrests, searches and seizures, she said.
“This was an amazing operation,” she said. “From internationally down to South Carolina, it takes a lot of coordination, intelligence and lots of investigation.”
Project Synergy helped DEA agents and authorities throughout the country execute 300 search warrants and serve more than 150 arrest warrants, according to a press release from Nettles.
The release said the operation targeted people and businesses in 35 states, 49 cities and five countries. Authorities seized more than 1,000 kilograms of synthetic drugs as part of the operation, a DEA release said.
In 2011, after the DEA labeled the substances illegal, S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) followed suit and placed three synthetic cathinone substances found in bath salts and five substances found in synthetic marijuana on its list of controlled substances.
Faile isn’t sure if more searches or arrests are planned.
“We’re not sure, though we want as many as we can get,” Faile said.
Contact reporter Chris Sardelli at (803) 416 8416