Soldotna couple arrested following Spice bust

Three people were arrested and more than 6,000 packets of synthetic cannabis, or Spice, have been seized from a local tobacco shop and its operators by Alaska State Troopers after a two-month investigation.

Members of the Statewide Drug Enforcement Unit seized the drugs from Tobacco Distress in Soldotna, and the store’s owner, Phillip Kneeland, and he wife Loren Kneeland have been arrested, according to an online trooper dispatch.

Soldotna resident William Dooley, 27, was also arrested on Thursday for his connection to the case, according to the dispatch.

Spice, meant to evoke the same reaction as cannabis, is an herbal mixture that gets sprayed with a variety of laboratory-generated chemicals, according to a State of Alaska Epidemiology report. It also produces symptoms not usually associated with regular cannabis, including agitation, aggressive behavior, hypertension and seizures, according to the report.

The local office of the Statewide Drug Enforcement Unit began investigating Tobacco Distress in October, and found 146 out of 518 packets of suspected spice tested positive for illegal components, according to the dispatch. On Wednesday, search warrants were served at the shop, the Kneeland’s home, and storage units the couple used, after which the 6,000 or so additional packets were found. A 12 gauge shotgun was also seized from Tobacco Distress, and six pistols were taken from the home and storage units, according to an affidavit signed by Investigator Levi Russell with the troopers. Investigators also took more than $76,000 from Tobacco Distress, the Kneeland’s home and their multiple safe deposit boxes.

“We received tips and requests from the community that this was going on,” said Sgt. Robert Hunter with the Statewide Drug Enforcement Team.

Phillip Kneeland was arrested on 13 charges, including misconduct involving a controlled substance in the second, third and fourth degree and second-degree misconduct involving weapons, and Loren Kneeland was arrested on one charge of misconduct involving a controlled substance in the fourth degree.

Tobacco Distress was renamed from Tobacco Express and transferred into Phillip Kneeland’s ownership in 2012, according to the store’s business license.

The couple was arraigned Thursday morning at the Kenai Courthouse by Magistrate Jennifer Wells. Phillip Kneeland had his own temporary defense lawyer, Eric Derleth of Soldotna. Derleth entered not-guilty pleas for both of them.

Wells set bail at a $5,000 cash performance bond for each of the Kneelands. They are also forbidden from selling or possessing anything in their store or home “that could be suspected of being ‘spice,’” according to their conditions of release document, though Wells said she had concerns about the clarity of that order.

The components of spice require significant testing, and the drug is often marketed as therapy oils and other goods, Wells said.

“Spice can be a little hard to nail down,” she said.

Derleth assured her the Kneelands would refrain from selling anything in their shop that could be construed as related to Spice.

“They’re going to err on the side of caution and sell Marlboros and such,” he said.

The couple’s next hearing is set for Jan. 8 if they are in custody, and for Jan. 20 if they have posted bail and been released.

Dooley was arrested on charges of misconduct involving a controlled substance in the third and fourth degree, and of misconduct involving a weapon in the second degree, “for possessing firearms in furtherance of controlled substance distribution,” according to the dispatch.

A group of community members protested outside Tobacco Distress in early October, citing the ease with which the drug’s composition can be changed to get around current restrictions on synthetic drugs as a major concern. Sterling resident and protest organizer Jessica Burch, a former Spice user and vocal advocate against it, said she is happy Spice will no longer be available through the store, but that there is a long way to go to eradicate it in the community.

“Just because the Spice shop is shut down doesn’t mean it wont be available,” Burch said. “It’s not gone but at least it’s out of the store.”

The time it took to make the arrests from when the investigation started can be attributed to the time it took to test each brand or variety of Spice that was seized in October, Hunter said. Members of the Drug Enforcement Team seized 12 different named varieties and two unnamed varieties, according to the affidavit. A sample of each variety was sent to a crime lab for testing, and some had to be sent to the Drug Enforcement Administration for further testing when they couldn’t immediately be identified, Hunter said.

Investigation in this case will continue, Hunter said, and members of the Drug Enforcement Team will begin looking into leads to find out how Tobacco Distress was being supplied.

“There’s been more questions that have come up and we need to have answers to those questions,” Hunter said. “Our goal is always to go after the bigger fish.”

Reach Megan Pacer at megan.pacer@peninsulaclarion.com.

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