ELKHART — When police raided six Elkhart gas stations for allegedly selling synthetic marijuana this summer, five of them shared something in common.
They were within a mile of the city’s core, in an area often referred to as “south-central” Elkhart, selling gasoline and convenience items in neighborhoods where incomes tend to be lower, while stations on the city’s edges were not involved in the raids.
That didn’t surprise Jason Moreno, a community organizer for LaCasa.
"I assume they did it as part of a predatory business practice,” Moreno said, referring to the retailer and likening it to other such businesses that he says target the poor, such as buy-here-pay-here auto lots, check cashing outlets and liquor stores. “There’s a direct correlation between increased poverty and increased drug use, so as a business model if you’re going to be selling drugs, of course you’re going to be selling drugs there.“
Rod Roberson, executive director of Church Community Services, a nonprofit that serves many of the neighborhood’s residents, agreed.
"In many high-risk, low-to-moderate income areas, people are targeted in many ways,” Roberson said. “I can’t get into the heads of anyone, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it was” a conscious decision by the accused retailers to target the area. “You would hope that people would take a different approach on how they conduct their business. These people were told and warned that they would be prosecuted and they continued to do it. As a community, we are ecstatic these places are no longer selling this stuff.”
Roberson said although commonly owned stores in other parts of Elkhart weren’t raided, he isn’t sure that they weren’t selling the drug also. People smoke marijuana and use other illegal drugs throughout the city, so it stands to reason that they also use synthetic marijuana in places other than the south side, he said.
"Maybe the frequency of it being sold in this particular area was greater so they went to the point of least resistance,” Roberson said of law enforcement’s decision to raid the south-central stores.
Roberson said he doesn’t think retailers targeted his community because of its racial demographics. Rather, the motivation was financial, as evidenced by the $2.2 million in cash and gold police found in one of the station owner’s safe deposit boxes. Regardless of retailers’ motives, Roberson said the community must look at itself, noting that “there’s supply where there’s demand.” Parents and community leaders should not only look at why people want to use synthetic marijuana, but also do more to convey its health risks, he said.
Roberson said family members of Tiana Alter, the 17-year-old Elkhart girl who was fatally stabbed in November, have said the man accused in her murder, 27-year-old Michael Shoun, was experiencing a psychotic trip from synthetic marijuana when he stabbed her multiple times in her Cleveland Township home. Shoun’s trial is set for Oct. 6.
"We need to educate our community on the effects this stuff is having,” Roberson said. “We need to say, ’Look, that stuff is crazy. Leave it alone. It will take your mind away.’”
Neither Vicki Becker, the chief deputy prosecutor handling the Shoun case, nor his public defender, Peter Todd, could be reached for comment.
Since Elkhart County Prosecutor Curtis Hill has chosen to shut down the stores while the criminal cases are pending, Moreno said he hopes the cases will move swiftly through the courts.
"Those businesses need to be back on the market and purchased by people who will run them ethically and properly,” Moreno said. “It’s just an inconvenience.”
Roberson would also like to see the stores re-open under new ownership, but he’s in no hurry.
"We need them reopened and used but I don’t want the same people operating these places and selling this junk,“ Roberson said. ”What’s more important is the prosecution is done the right way. The poisoning of the community with that drug is just repugnant.“