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Pittsburgh police to initiate new patrols focused on smoke shops and activity around them

Police to initiate patrols focused on smoke shops in Pittsburgh
Police to initiate patrols focused on smoke shops in Pittsburgh 03:40

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — The Pittsburgh Bureau of Police is initiating new patrols Downtown focused on smoke shops and the street activity around them.

Last week, shots were fired in the early evening outside of a smoke shop on Liberty Avenue at Stanwix Street in Downtown. Those involved scattered, leaving police to close the sidewalk to foot traffic and question the smoke shop owners inside.

No arrests have been made, but in the months leading up to the incident, this had been the scene: mostly young men hanging out in front of smoke shops on Liberty Avenue and nearby Market Square. You need to be 21 to purchase cigarettes or any of the non-tobacco products the shops sell and most appear to be teenagers.

"We have started to crack down, working with DA's office and others on some of those establishments," Pittsburgh Public Safety Director Lee Schmidt said.

Concern about what those shops are selling and the young people they attract has led police to initiate a crackdown. Schmidt said starting this week, there will be more officers on the streets in Downtown and others talking to smoke shop owners.

"Within the next week, you're going to see more police presence than before," Schmidt said. "We're also going to have other officers engaging with these businesses, talking to them about best practices. We don't want to close businesses, but we can't have illegal activity happening out of any business."

KDKA-TV has reported recently on the rapid spread of these smoke and vape shops and concern about the unregulated products they sell. Police recently raided a smoke shop in Market Square and Hippie Town on the same block on Liberty Avenue, accusing the owners of selling marijuana. 

KDKA-TV sent photojournalist Ian Smith into Hippie Town and moments later he re-emerged.

"We bought some flower," Smith said. "It's dried flower. He says it'll get you high."

The owner of Hippie Town wasn't in, but KDKA-TV spoke with him on the phone. He declined to comment, but in court, he has maintained that he sells THCa — an unregulated but so far legal form of cannabis that proponents say won't get you high in its raw form but will if you smoke or vape it. 

KDKA-TV photojournalist Ian Smith bought some purported THCa from an attendant inside.

"He says it's THCa," Smith said. "He was trying to explain the difference between that and what you get in the dispensary, and he said there's no difference."

While the argument is played out in court, Schmidt says police will closely monitor these shops and discourage and redirect young people hanging outside.

"To find positive places for them to be, whether that be a little restaurant or cafe for them to hang out in," Schmidt said. "We're happy to do that. We just want more positive interactions for everybody."

Schmidt says young people are welcomed in Downtown and police will be working with others to provide them healthy activities. But he says hanging out in front of smoke shops is not one of them.

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