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Smoke shop owner decries negative stigma around his stores

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As local and federal health officials and legislators decry the sale of what they consider synthetic drug products such as bath salts, at least one local retailer is trying to combat what he calls an unfair stigma and a public misunderstanding about the products he sells.

“I’m not going to get pushed around any further,” said John E. Tebbetts III, owner of Tebb’s Headshop, 144 Eastern Blvd.

He said his store did not sell anything related to bath salts, the synthetic drug similar to methamphetamine and cocaine that has hit local and national headlines for its grave health impacts and the violent behavior of its users. A spokeswoman for Samaritan Health Center said bath salts and similar products currently contribute to about five emergency room calls each day.

To circumvent federal regulations, many retailers will label their synthetic drug products with either a brand name or as a nonedible product such as glass cleaner or butterfly attractant, with a disclaimer that the product is not meant for human consumption.

Signs inside of Mr. Tebbetts’s store indicate that it sold containers of clear glass cleaner in both single containers for about $20 and packs of three for about $50. Mr. Tebbetts insisted that the product was nearly identical to Windex, and was only for the cleaning of glass pipes and bongs, which he also sells at the store.

“What am I going to do, not sell cleaner?” he said. “I sell tons of glass for use with tobacco products.”

Anita K. Seefried-Brown, program director of the Alcohol and Substance Abuse Council, said the explanation does not hold water.

“It smells like a three-day-old dead fish,” she said.

Ms. Seefried-Brown noted the store’s current advertising, which tells customers that they know what the store has, and to “go get it.”

“Do we really look that stupid?” she said. “We know what it’s for.”

Though Mr. Tebbetts acknowledged that some of his products have been abused by customers, he said he and his staff have gone out of their way to prevent that from happening, including removing customers who appear to be under the influence of drugs.

“We refuse more people than any people in their right mind would,” he said.

He also said he pulled two products from his shelves after speaking with the Watertown Police Department, but declined to identify which products were pulled.

In addition to the Eastern Boulevard location, Mr. Tebbetts owns seven other stores in New York and three in Maine. He said he is in court fighting state regulators in Herkimer County, and won a decision against the city of Rome after it passed rules that he said targeted his stores.

With federal regulations soon to be implemented banning three common chemicals used in making bath salts along with several used in creating synthetic marijuana products, Mr. Tebbetts said he was closely watching which chemicals fell under FDA and DEA restrictions.

“When this law comes down, no single thing in my store will be under this law,” he said.

Mr. Tebbetts’s stores are not the only location commonly linked to synthetic drug products. At the High Life, 22220 Route 11, a cashier said the store did not sell bath salts, but did point to two brands of glass cleaner on display that could be purchased, either in a small vial or a plastic bag. A phone message left for the store’s owner Thursday afternoon was not returned.

At Trip on the Wild Side II, 671 Mill St., a cashier said the store did not sell any bath salts or any similar products.

Ms. Seefried-Brown said she would welcome Mr. Tebbetts at the next meeting of a community work group centered on the sale and distribution of synthetic drugs.

“He can make his case to the work group,” she said.

The group’s next meeting is scheduled for 2 p.m. Tuesday in the first-floor conference room of the Marcy Building, 167 Polk St.

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