In response to reports of rampant crime in the vicinity, Kingsport police have stationed a mobile command unit RV directly across from a business allegedly selling synthetic drugs, saturating the area with multiple officers.
The efforts began Thursday, with Kingsport Police Chief Gale Osborne saying it would continue as long as needed to protect Model City residents. On Friday morning personnel of the shop, Ultimate Smoke, 2307 East Center Street, declined comment when approached by the Times-News.
Meanwhile, several motorists passing the police operations shouted praise and encouragement to officers, who were monitoring for speeders and illegal parking outside the shop. Along with the traffic hazards — which have allegedly hindered the work of area crossing guards, putting students attempting to leave nearby schools at risk — Osborne says there's been a high volume of vandalism, thefts and disturbances.
"You don't have to sit there and take somebody cussing you out, treating you like you're less than human," said Osborne, relaying the experience of an area business owner.
"We might do this a month, we might work it two months," Osborne said of the operation, which is funded through a grant. "We're going to take back this community."
The KPD command unit is operating from the parking lot of Shear Elegance Salon and Day Spa. Owner Dan Guiles reports seeing several confrontations between crossing guards and customers of Ultimate Smoke, along with having copper and metal stolen from his building's heating and air unit.
Guiles says the heavy traffic in and out of Ultimate Smoke has flooded his parking lot and hindered his and his wife's business. He posted a sign alerting motorists that parking is for Shear Elegance clients only, to no avail.
"I was like, ‘What am I going to have to do, start shooting people?' " Guiles says with a slight chuckle.
Observing the public's positive reaction to the police presence on Friday, Shear Elegance has opted for a more civil approach to the problem. They've launched a petition to have Ultimate Smoke closed, and are welcoming the public to place their signatures on the document. It is available in the salon.
Dr. Brett Salley operates his office, Dr. Brett T. Salley Chiropractic Clinic, a few doors down from Ultimate Smoke. He says that since the shop opened last year he's seen individuals obviously under the influence, while his clients are expressing the area does not feel safe.
"The concerns of mine are the substances and how people are using them — the danger that imposes on the community," Salley said.
"I feel that people have a right, and should have assurance, of a safe environment around the office."
Heath Lawson personally knows the perils — and highs — of synthetic drugs. A resident of the East Center Street area, he stopped to talk with the officers enforcing parking, seat belt, speed limit and jaywalking laws.
"I've done everything out there: meth, coke — I've done it all," said Lawson. "And (bath salts) are the worst thing I've ever seen."
He says a friend of his is psychotic due to synthetic drugs, while his son's friend, 18, died of an overdose from using the products.
According to Lawson, the cravings for synthetic drugs are less intense than "jonesing" for hard street narcotics — which makes bath salts all the more dangerous.
"You think you've got a handle on it, but you don't," said Lawson. "It gives you a fake sense of security, and it makes it 100 times more deadly because of that. It makes it 200 times more deadly because they're selling it in that damn store.
"Don't these people have a heart," he questions. "They're killing people."
Both police and health officials have categorized the use of synthetic drugs as an "epidemic." Though labeled "not for human consumption," products such as K2, Spice and many "herbal incense" blends are commonly known to produce intense highs when ingested.
Tennessee attempted to ban synthetic drugs in 2011, prohibiting certain ingredients used in their production. Manufacturers then tweaked the chemical makeup to skirt around legislation, keeping their products on store shelves.
Tennessee lawmakers are now exploring the adoption of a statute similar to that in Virginia, banning and criminalizing all substances intended to imitate or mimic the affects of an illegal drug.
In December Kingsport city leaders adopted a synthetic drug ordinance, making it possible for police to levy a $50 citation to individuals selling or in possession of the products. Several area head shops — including Ultimate Smoke of Kingsport — then filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court, seeking to have banning ordinances declared unconstitutional. Kingsport, Bristol and Sullivan County are named as defendants. The cities and county have since filed a motion to have the shop owners' lawsuit dismissed.
Staff writer Kevin Castle contributed to this report.