NEW ULM - The New Ulm City Council scrutinized an application for a tobacco shop in the former Smokes 4 Less building Tuesday and then approved it by a 4-1 vote.
The application was made by Kamal Kehelaouinet, of Marshall, through his business Marshall's Tobacco Inc. He hopes to operate "New Ulm Smoke Shop" and remodel the space before opening in July.
Kehelaouinet said he is fully aware of the controversy the Smokes 4 Less business last year. He stated he has neither plans to sell synthetic marijuana nor to encourage any illegal consumption of chemicals. He is willing to work with the Council and the New Ulm Police Department to resolve any concerns they have with his new business.
Given a chance
The Council questioned Kehelaouinet about the planned details of his business.
Councilor Les Schultz, who is also director of Brown County Probation Department, asked whether the store planned to sell "synthetic marijuana" and what percentage of the product sold would be drug paraphernalia.
Kehelaouinet said he does not plan to sell any product related to "synthetic marijuana" and that his store will only have 25 percent of its product described as drug paraphernalia.
The Council discussed adding conditions to the license banning the sale of "synthetic marijuana" or related paraphernalia, but City Attorney Hugh Nierengarten warned that the unsettled legality around both made crafting a ban that did not target legal products nearly impossible. However, he said the items the Council is concerned about are already banned by state law.
The Council ultimately voted to grant the license, with the presumption that it could revoke the license if the store violated the discussed problems. The license was passed on a four-to-one vote. Schultz cast the dissenting vote because drug paraphernalia would be sold in the store.
Ghost of stores past
Last year, the Council generated statewide attention by denying a cigarette license to the New Ulm Smokes 4 Less over accusations the store was selling "herbal incense" laced with synthetic cannabinoids, which are dangerous chemicals intended to replicate the high of marijuana.
Councilor Les Schultz, who is director of the Brown County Probation Department, led the charge against the store. He accused its operators of intentionally selling the product to circumvent drug laws. New laws have since been passed by the Legislature, clamping down on chemicals described as "synthetic marijuana" that were not illegal because they did not meet the chemical definition of banned products.
Store owners and supporters of the store fired back that the Council was unfairly discriminating against a single store selling a legal product and that the incense packages were clearly labeled "not for human consumption." The store owners also said that the incense was not laced with any of the described chemical nor any other illegal chemicals. NUPD officers purchased packages undercover and sent the substances to the state testing labs. However, the sheer volume of test requests has delayed results.
Smokes 4 Less eventually agreed last June to the Council's terms for reinstating the cigarette license, which banned the sale of both incense and synthetic cannabinoids in the store. However, the store closed in early August.
Police officers with knowledge of the situation said their sources confirmed the store was making $6,000 a day in sales.
Schultz said the Probation Department saw a jump in incidents of the youth it works with being caught with "synthetic marijuana," and that nearly every case linked back to the store. The probation department got 10 to 15 cases a week while the store operated. The rate has dropped to barely one case per week since the store closed, according to Schultz.
Kehelaouinet was charged with two cases of selling synthetic marijuana last year and ultimately entered an Alford Plea in December of 2012. The plea means the defendant does not admit guilt, but admits there is enough evidence to generate a conviction. He received a stay of adjudication in exchange for two years probation, 120 hours of Sentenced to Serve and allowing random checks of his business by law enforcement.
He confirmed that he was introduced to the New Ulm site by the former store manager.
(Josh Moniz can be e-mailed at email@example.com)