Wednesday, December 6, 2023

Not child’s play: Officers confiscate illegal products packaged like chips, candy


Earlier this month, five Granbury police officers conducted site visits to stores that sell vaping products and confiscated 4,613 items containing illegal amounts of THC that were packaged to look like candy and other products that appeal to kids.

THC, or Tetrahydrocannabinol, is the major psychoactive component in cannabis. In other words, it’s pot.

The officers didn’t make a single arrest, nor did they ask the county attorney or district attorney to prosecute anyone.

That wasn’t the purpose of the operation.

The police department’s goal was to educate store owners and protect customers who might be unaware that what they were purchasing could lead to a felony charge.

Every store owner complied with the effort, department representatives said, and they willingly turned over more than $82,000 worth of illegal merchandise.

“The law is confusing,” said Lieutenant Garrett Wiginton. “It’s not very well written, and these products (have) labels that would make you think they’re legal. But when you actually scan the codes for the ingredients, or you do a test with one of our field test kits, they’re not legal. Anything above .3 is presumed from the marijuana leaf and contains THC.”

He said that the products surrendered by store owners are “either a synthetic THC or THC that’s (derived) from the marijuana plant. So, from the state’s view, all of these items are a felony offense to possess, whether you’re a child or an adult. It’s a felony offense regardless.”

Wiginton said that consumers often believe that a product has a .3 or less THC potency and therefore legal, but they actually contain “synthetic THC, which is illegal, or they have a higher THC than .3. A lot of them are .6 or .8, well over the legal THC limit, which makes them a felony, which is punishable by two years in jail or a $10,000 fine. So, it’s not a little slap on the wrist.”

Photos taken of the surrendered items show packaging in bright, primary colors, with labels seemingly deliberately made to look like candy or snacks with name brand labels, such as Skittles or Air Heads.

The site visits took place May 1-5. Illegal items were found at 19 stores, 17 of which were inside the city limits and two of which were just outside the city limits.

In addition to the five police officers, the operation also involved the department’s evidence technician, Kent Barnes. The state comptroller’s office, District Attorney Ryan Sinclair, and County Attorney Matt Mills were informed ahead of time of what the department intended to do.

“The goal was to visit every single location in the city that we’re aware of that sells vape pens, tobacco products — anything, anywhere that would sell a vape, tobacco product, these type of gummies or THC products in any manner, and just try to educate them on what is legal what’s not legal and ask for their voluntary compliance in turning over what was illegal,” Wiginton said.

The lieutenant said the department has tried to be judicious in the way such offenses have been handled due to so much confusion around the law. Those charged with felonies “knew or should have known” that the product they possessed was illegal, he said, and they typically also possessed other contraband.

Officer Justin Pugh, who was among those who made the site visits, said that officers handle such situations differently, but said, “We would rather go after someone who’s intentionally violating the law than someone who just walked into a store and didn’t know what they were purchasing.”

He indicated that lack of awareness was part of the reason why the department conducted the operation.

“Seventeen- and 18-year-old kids are getting felony convictions on their record and that changes their life,” he said. “That’s not anyone’s goal.”

Wiginton and Pugh said that the effort to remove deceptively packaged illegal products from store shelves has not ended. Follow-up visits will be conducted to make sure stores remain in compliance and additional stores may be targeted.

“One of our next goals is to try to collaborate with the sheriff’s department and keep this ball rolling and visit some more stores (throughout the county),” Wiginton said.

Pugh stated that some stores that were checked were in “complete compliance.”

Wiginton expressed appreciation for the cooperation of the store owners. Because of their willingness to help rather than hinder the effort, no search warrants were required.

Wiginton said the department frequently receives calls from Granbury school officials about students who are in possession of vape pens that have THC. Nicotine products as well are illegal for anyone under 21.

He said he will notify school officials about the department’s recent findings from the vape store visits.

Wiginton indicated that parents may have spotted some of the illegal products in their child’s backpack but didn’t realize what it was due to deceptive packaging.

He, along with Pugh and Barnes, advised parents who find such products in their child’s possession to dispose of it, but without transporting it anywhere. If they wish, they can notify the PD without fear of repercussions for themselves or their child, they said.