PORTAGEVILLE, MO (KFVS) - Stores in the Heartland continue selling products labeled aromatherapy, incense, spice, and potpourri for $30 a package. It's a booming business that has neighbors and authorities concerned.
The items look like products we've shown you in the past that have later tested positive for synthetic marijuana.
But, what happens when this merchandise is not considered synthetic pot, at least not yet?
Concerned viewers in New Madrid County asked me to try and tackle that question.
One viewer provided me with empty incense packets this person says came from the parking lot of Diamond Jim's, a small liquor store just off I-55 at the Portageville exit.
The packages look very similar to products sold at other businesses that later tested positive for synthetic marijuana.
I took the packages with me to Diamond Jim's to see if I could find out more.
The clerk I met at Diamond Jim's told me the packages in my hand did not come from this store.
You don't sell this here? I asked.
"Ah, no we don't," she answered.
Not behind the counter at the drive-through window?
"No Ma'am. You are willing to take a look."
With no products in plain view, I asked her to call the store's owner, Carlis McHugh, to see if he would come down here and talk to me.
But before this call is made, I'd already contacted local investigators to ask about this latest twist in the synthetic drug battle--products that are still considered legal, yet they say are still being abused.
"We've had several people from within the community to contact us with concerns about it," said New Madrid County Sheriff Terry Stevens. "We know of several individuals who are abusing it. And it's a viable concern for us."
"Our hands are tied, to be honest," admitted Mark McClendon with the SEMO Drug Task Force. "You hope that the businesses out here realize the effect that they're having on the public."
McClendon points out products like these do not contain the specific ingredients by law to be considered synthetic pot, but the effect of smoking them are basically the same.
"The results are, they're impaired. Their driving is impaired. Their speech is impaired. It's just a bad deal," he told me.
Sheriff Stevens says the businesses selling this stuff know they are on law enforcement's radar.
"I think they are aware," said Sheriff Stevens. "I know the one in my county is aware."
And according to our viewers, that one business in New Madrid County is Diamond Jim's.
Back at the small store, the clerk points to the front door and I watch as a silver-haired man walks in.
"Hi there. Are you Mr. McHugh?" I asked the gentleman who walked into Diamond Jim's minutes after the clerk called for the owner to meet me.
"I'm Kathy Sweeney. I'm from Heartland News. I'm doing a story about synthetics and I wanted to ask you about these kinds of products being sold here from your business."
As I ask, I hold up two empty product wrappers a viewer reportedly collected from Diamond Jim's parking lot.
One is called "Mayan Aromatherapy Incense" and the other "Jolly Scents Jungle Fruit Sachet Refill".
Both are labeled "not for human consumption" and both appear similar to products sold at other businesses in the past later proven to contain synthetic marijuana.
"I got nothing to say about it," Carlis McHugh responded.
"Are you selling this?" I asked.
"I tell you, I have nothing to say about it," he told me.
If it's not illegal, then it shouldn't be a problem to talk about it, I counter.
It takes a moment for McHugh to sit down, and now start to defend the products he acknowledges selling the week before.
"It's legal," he told me. "Like I said, I don't have to sell this stuff, you know what I mean? And if it was illegal, I sure wouldn't sell it."
I've heard you've got a great restaurant, I mention. "I do". A successful bar.... "Been there 36 years". That's why I wanted to ask you directly about it, because there is concern about this kind of product (holding wrappers).
"I understand," McHugh told. "I understand. I understand that completely. Of course, I guess if you think about it, to be honest there's concern about any product. You know, somebody buys a knife or a gun or alcohol or a car. You know, I guess there's concern with anything you buy, don't you think?"
McHugh goes on to tell me, "When I first started selling it, I was told by two lawyers that it was legal. And also I had some paperwork from the Highway Patrol that showed where it all came back, it didn't have the illegal chemicals in it."
"These sell for what, 30 bucks a shot?" I asked him. "40 bucks a shot?"
"All you can get," he answered raising his hands.
"So people aren't buying this for incense or aromatherapy?" I asked questioning the high price.
"Ma'am, you're the one who keeps bringing that up," he told me.
"Well, I'm asking you."
"It says right on the package, not for human consumption," he told me, leaning forward to point to the empty packets I'm still holding.
"I have never seen, and I will take a lie detector's test on this, I have never seen anybody smoking any of that stuff."
"And what would you say if somebody bought something here, and then told law enforcement when they got pulled over for a DUI that they bought it here and they smoked it. Would that surprise you?"
"I don't know," McHugh responded. "That's up to them. You know, people buy alcohol and give it to minors. People got out to the gun store and buy guns and kill a lot of people. You know, I can't be all things to all people. I'm not God."
"Given what's going on though with synthetics, and I know you're a respected businessman in this community because everyone's told me that, are you going to keep selling this kind of product or not?" I asked.
"We are not selling it as of now," he told me.
"Ever again? Done?" I asked.
"I'm not saying not ever again," he responded. "I'm in consultation with a couple of lawyers to make sure that I'm legal."
Mark McClendon says he hopes lawmakers and prosecutors can give them some new tools to continue the fight against synthetics, and new products on the market they find are being abused.
Until then, both he and Sheriff Stevens agree, they'll continue fighting a frustrating battle involving illegal and legal substances.