Even the fourth-biggest city in Missouri needs only so many smoke shops.
That’s proved to be the sentiment in Independence, which recently capped the number of such stores within its boundaries at 14.
An ordinance, unanimously approved by the Independence City Council, limits the number of such stores based upon the city’s 2010 U.S. Census population of 116,830.
The ordinance would limit only the number of tobacco or convenience stores that do not have gasoline sales, said City Manager Robert Heacock.
The amendment was part of a “multi-pronged approach to address illegal activity that has been associated with these types of businesses,” according to the ordinance text.
“This will be the next step in addressing what we have seen through the police department as an emerging problem with establishments that are starting to sell synthentic marijuana and drug paraphernalia in our community,” Heacock told the council in March.
“We’ve noticed that a number of establishments that would fit under this category of use have had problems with that type of activity.”
The city recently tweaked its administrative procedures so it could suspend such a store’s license in the same way it has done in the past with stores selling alcohol, Heacock said.
Last September, authorities executed search warrants at several tobacco and convenience stores in Independence. They recovered thousands of packages of synthetic marijuana, according to the 2013 report of the Jackson County Task Force.
The next month authorities on both sides of the state line conducted raids on establishments apparently stocking synthetic marijuana.
About a dozen local, state and federal law enforcement agencies — the Independence Police Department among them — worked together, visiting convenience stores, gas stations and other businesses thought to be selling such substances. Officers served 45 search warrants in the Kansas City area and Topeka and made 31 arrests.
During the operation Independence authorities conducted field tests of a product obtained at the Fast Trip at 1315 E. U.S. 24. The tests “showed a positive result for illegal synthetic drugs,” according to the agenda item sheet that accompanied the recent application to obtain a liquor license submitted by the store’s operator.
At the time police were waiting on lab tests for a final determination if the substances found at the establishment were illegal synthetic drugs.
Unlike more traditional drug investigations where officers can conduct field tests to detect the presence of cocaine and marijuana and make immediate arrests, the investigations into synthetic marijuana — sometimes known as K2 or spice — can take months to complete while investigators await lab resuls.
Independence authorities are still waiting for those results, police spokesman Tom Gentry said recently.
While no one appeared before the City Council last December to speak in favor of the Fast Trip application, many residents of the area, as well as members of a nearby church, showed up to speak against it.
Jerry Moore, who said he had operated the barber shop across the highway for many years, testified that the traffic brought to the area by the convenience store had proved to be a nuisance.
“Until they came in there, I really had no altercations or problems or issues,” Moore said.
“But since they’ve been there I’ve seen fighting; I‘ve had to call police on them. People wander over to my business and try to solicit monies and try to bother my customers, and that greatly effects by my business.”
Steve Bishop, part of the pastorate of the New Jerusalem Restoration Branch church, about 1200 feet east from the Fast Trip store, called the liquor license application a “serious matter” for congregation members, many of whom are children.
“We have had on occasion drunken passers-by on foot disrupting activities,” Bishop said.
A liquor license, he said, “would add to the traffic of those who are intoxicated, or those who would like to be, too near to where our children play and worship.”
The Independence Police Department recommended denial of the application, as did the city’s licensing division.
The council unanimously voted to deny the application.
Heacock suggested that capping the number of smoke shops is in line with other regulatory efforts.
“I don’t think this is a whole lot different from the caps that have been put into place on the number of payday loan places,” Heacock said. “It’s just setting a standard. It is a privilege to get a business license.”
Heacock attributed much of the momentum behind the city’s actions to Curt Dougherty, City Council representative for the 2nd District, in the city’s northeast area. While district residents have contacted him regarding the stores, Dougherty said, he’s also wondered how many such stores are necessary.
“How many more places do we need to sell tobacco in Independence?” said Doughterty.
Dougherty’s sentiments were echoed on a recent morning by a woman operating the Discount Smoke Shop at 17515 E. U.S. 24.
While not wanting to give her name, the woman said the store served a need, adding that she would mark 20 years working at the Independence location as of this coming October.
But, she added, the years have brought competition. There were now five retail locations selling tobacco products just in the two blocks east of her door.
“There’s a bazillion stores selling tobacco in Independence,” she said.