Breathing Down Their Necks
Employees at The Dragons Breath smoke shop and tattoo studio in Bedford were already feeling heat from a city that isn’t keen on tattoo and piercing businesses in general. Code officers have cracked down on Dragons Breath, and the city’s decision on an upcoming zoning request could effectively put the studio out of business. Store employees responded by posting an online petition requesting that the city back off and allow the studio to remain open. Hundreds of people signed.
And then things got hotter.
Bedford police officers served a warrant at the store last week. Employees said police spent hours inside the store rifling through desks and files, breaking into the store’s two safes, and confiscating computers, an estimated $2,000 in cash, and potpourri products alleged to contain an illegal synthetic marijuana substance that mimics the effects of real pot when smoked.
“It’s a witch hunt to find any way they can to run us off,” said the store’s assistant manager Charles “Chief” Clark, who got his nickname during a law enforcement career that included a stint as police chief in Pelican Bay, a small town north of Fort Worth near Eagle Mountain Lake.
Store managers deny selling Spice, as it’s sometimes called. Texas banned the product in 2010, but manufacturers used other synthetic elements to bypass the law. In September, the Drug Enforcement Administration banned all such substances.
Clark left law enforcement in 2007, joined Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) and the marijuana legalization group NORML, and became a civil rights activist and speaker. He’s an advertising and marketing representative for the Dragons Breath chain that includes four stores in Texas.
At 6 foot, 6 inches and almost 300 pounds, the heavily tatted Clark cuts an imposing figure. He isn’t afraid to speak his mind — he views the city’s crackdown as an attempt to push a legitimate business out of town and a form of harassment because of his controversial activism. Last year he met with Bedford police chief Roger Gibson and complained of police cars following him and pulling him over without cause.
“There was nothing relayed to me that led me to believe that he was being singled out for enforcement,” Gibson said. “I don’t think there is anything to it. I left there thinking he was satisfied with the answers. He didn’t file a complaint.”
Fort Worth attorney Mark Daniel, who represents Dragons Breath, said Clark is a valued employee but doesn’t speak for the company or its owners. Daniel said the store did not stock or sell any banned substances but has no beef with the city.
“We have been in compliance and will stay that way and resolve this amicably,” he said. “We’re not saying they [Bedford officials] are treating us in a negative way. We’re not antagonistic with them whatsoever, and we hope they don’t feel that way toward us.”
Clark didn’t get the memo. He said the city’s scrutiny has been intense for the past couple of years. He sees the latest warrant as an act of “overzealous idiots with badges who don’t know the law.”
Bedford passed an ordinance in 2008 that requires tattoo parlors to get a special- use permit. Dragons Breath opened about 10 years ago in Bedford and remains the city’s only tattoo studio and smoke shop. The business was grandfathered, but later a code officer determined renovations had been made to the building years earlier without a permit. Dragons Breath was attempting to get that permit, but planning and zoning commissioners turned down the request. The Bedford City Council has the final say on whether the shop gets a permit and will hear the case on Feb. 14.
Dragons Breath is barely noticeable in a strip mall on Central Drive, situated in a business district that includes businesses from car washes to pawnshops, apartments, banks, and salons.
Manager Adam Rivera said he is well aware of the 2010 law that banned Spice, K2, and other brands of synthetic cannabis derivative.
“When that was banned we took it off the shelves,” he said. “We are an accountable store.”
The “incense and potpourri” products the store continued to sell don’t contain banned substances, he said.
But Bedford Deputy Police Chief E.W. Griffin said his officers continued to receive complaints about illegal products being sold. Late last year, police gave the store a list of the banned substances and considered it a warning. Later, a plainclothes officer purchased some potpourri at the store and sent it to a lab. The product tested positive for a banned substance, Griffin said.
“We issued warrants for that,” he said.
The raid had nothing to do with Clark’s controversial reputation in some law enforcement circles and everything to do with potpourri sales, Griffin said.
“I don’t believe we even knew of his background until this started,” he said. “If they had complied, we would never have gotten a warrant and gone down there.”
Griffin also disputes allegations that the city is trying to run Dragons Breath out of town.
“We have not received any pressure from city hall because it’s a tattoo shop or a smoke shop,” he said.
Police will send the newly confiscated potpourri for testing this week and should get the results back a few days later, Griffin said. If the product tests positive, police can file charges against the store for selling a banned substance.
Manufacturing, selling, and possessing the banned substances are misdemeanor offenses with penalties up to $4,000 and a year in jail.