Three months after a high-profile federal raid of businesses selling synthetic drugs, which included shops here and in Iowa City, Cedar Rapids officials are proposing their own creative tactic to crack down on what they call a “terrible” community danger.
The City Council’s Development Committee this week approved an amendment to the city’s zoning ordinance which would prohibit newly opening, takeout alcohol and tobacco shops from advertising, storing or offering for sale “any form of recreational synthetic drug.”
A Cedar Rapids takeout alcohol/tobacco shop was among those raided across the nation and outside of it in June in the search for synthetic drugs.
The proposed amendment to the Cedar Rapids ordinance would seem to solve a law enforcement conundrum related to synthetic drugs, the makers of which have been known to change a drugs’ chemical makeup enough to get around laws that outlaw certain synthetic chemical makeups.
“They find one variation, and the manufacturers change or tweak it a little bit and keep selling,” Cedar Rapids police Lt. Walter Deeds said on Thursday.
The proposed Cedar Rapids change for now is directed at new alcohol and tobacco shops in which more than 40 percent of their business comes from the sale of alcohol and tobacco primarily intended for off-premise consumption.
Newly opening shops would be required to obtain a conditional use permit to operate, a permit that then could be withdrawn if, as stated in the proposed ordinance change, they advertised, stored or sold synthetic recreational drugs. The shops also would be required to institute a strict no-loitering policy, provide litter containers and install video security cameras.
“It is a unique go at this because there really is nothing out there that regulates this,” Lt. Deeds said. “So we’re trying from a different avenue. It’s such a danger to the community, we had to try something. … These synthetics are terrible.”
Thomas Smith, a planner in the city’s Community Development Department, said that proposed ordinance change now will be reviewed by the City Planning Commission and the Board of Adjustment before it goes in final form to the full City Council for consideration.
As proposed, the ordinance amendment would affect only newly opening businesses, not existing ones, and it would not apply to other businesses that gain most of their revenue from something other than alcohol or tobacco sales but may sell synthetic drugs.
Deeds said alcohol and tobacco shops continue to pop up in the city that do sell alcohol and tobacco. “But, quite honestly, the money is in the synthetic stuff,” he said.
“If you go into these little alcohol and tobacco stores, they’ve got just a wide variety of these synthetics, and they have odd names and they’re clearly stamped, ‘Not for human consumption,’” Deeds said. “Yet people routinely buy these things and ingest them, I would assume mostly by smoking, but I’m sure, being creative, there are other ways to ingest them as well.”
The change in the city’s regulations on alcohol and tobacco shops has been under discussion by the council’s Development Committee and the city’s Community Development Department’s planning staff for some months.
The central focus of the discussion, though, has been to lessen the concentration of such shops in certain neighborhoods, such as the Uptown District in and around Coe College.
Smith said the Police Department asked that the new prohibition against the sale of synthetic drugs be included in the proposed ordinance changes.
The city’s existing rules require alcohol and tobacco shops to be 300 feet from a church or school as measured front door to front door along a public sidewalk or right of way. The new law requires a 300-foot separation from the nearest point of schools, educational institutions, religious facilities, rehabilitation centers, emergency residential shelters, libraries, parks, rec centers, civic auditoriums and convention centers.
More significantly, new alcohol and tobacco shops would not be permitted within one-quarter mile of another such shop.
“I like it,” council member Monica Vernon, chairwoman of the council’s Development Committee, said this week of the proposed new separation requirements.
Smith told council and committee member Scott Olson that he did not think there was a large number of spots in the city that would be impacted by the proposed new separation rules if alcohol and tobacco shops closed and new ones wanted to open in the same spot.
Jerry Ziese, the new executive director of the Uptown District, on Thursday said the district supports the City Council “100 percent” in what it is proposed to do to stiffen regulations on alcohol and tobacco shops.
“We are concerned about that kind of thing — having more of those storefronts than we want. We’d rather have other kinds of shops in there,” Ziese said.
In Iowa City, Jeff Davidson, director of the city’s Planning & Community Development Department, on Thursday said the city of Iowa City is not considering using the zoning ordinance to regulate the sale of synthetic drugs.
“In order to consider it, I would want to see some evidence from the Police Department that a conditional use permit “solution” would be effective in dealing with the synthetic drug issue,” Davidson said.