New London - "There's power in numbers" is an old adage that proved true on Wednesday for the 22 New London High School students who visited convenience stores and gas stations throughout the city, imploring them to stop selling glass pipes, bongs, marijuana grinders and synthetic marijuana blends.
Of the 14 stores visited, six that carry drug paraphernalia or synthetic marijuana blends agreed to pull the items from their shelves. Five stores did not sell drug paraphernalia or synthetic marijuana blends and three did sell the products but were not able to agree wholly because the store manager was not present.
The students were accompanied by school resource officer and New London police officer Max Bertsch, members of the police department's Citizens on Patrol program, Superintendent of Schools Nicholas A. Fischer and Chief of Police Margaret Ackley.
Wednesday afternoon's effort was for the city's kids, Bertsch said.
To the stores that agreed to stop selling the drug paraphernalia or did not sell it at all, Bertsch presented a New London Community Safe Store Program certificate.
The certificate - a sign that the store cares about New London's youth, Bertsch said - will hang in the store's window once all drug paraphernalia and/or synthetic marijuana blends are removed from store's inventory.
He said the police department will follow up on the stores' promises to stop selling.
The stores also have another incentive.
In six weeks, it will be illegal for any store in Connecticut to sell bath salts, synthetic marijuana and salvia. On March 29, those substances were classified as Schedule I controlled substances, and the continued sale of those products after the six weeks may result in felony charges and/or fines and may have an impact on a store's ability to sell over-the-counter medications, liquor or participate as a lottery sales agent, according to a release by the state Department of Consumer Protection.
"I've seen it firsthand, what these kids look like on K2," Bertsch said. "Throwing up, blanking out ... Most New London High School kids walk to these stores after school and that stuff is thrown in their face."
Most of the stores that sold drug paraphernalia displayed it next to, above or near the candy.
"It's not right to have that stuff next to the candy," Natasha Pena, a junior, said.
"I feel it's very disrespectful because my brother can go into the store and see those things, and then I have to lie and tell him it's something different so he doesn't get curious."
Like a flash mob, the group of 22 students descended upon each store.
Expressions of shock and confusion were seen on the faces of each cashier and store owner they encountered.
After taking few seconds to absorb the slightly overwhelming situation, cashier Zashan Akram at the Sunoco on Broad Street, told the group that the store does not sell "that kind of stuff."
"We don't like to do that," he said. "Everybody knows that this isn't good for anyone. Using this stuff will affect generations."
At the Sunoco gas station on Williams Street at Hodges Square, owner Uday Patel agreed to remove the pipes, which were on display in a glass case.
"I support the kids. I always tell them not to smoke, but I also have a business to run. I need to sell this stuff because every store's selling," Patel said. "I hope I don't lose business when I stop."
For the past four years, Patel's store has been recognized by the state for not selling tobacco to minors.
Freshman Angela Morales estimated that about 60 percent of the students at the high school have experimented with marijuana or synthetic blends of the drug.
"They do it to be cool and to hang out with the cool kids, but I try to tell them that they can get really sick if they try it. It's not safe," she said.
A young man entered while the group was inside Sam's Food Store at 1 Ocean Ave. After seeing the large group of students and community members, he asked what was going on. He was told of the group's efforts and immediately responded with, "That's what I'm here to buy," then quickly exited the store.
Junior Brandon Woodhouse was hopeful that the stores would comply with their requests.
"It will become a positive change for New London. It sends a negative message to youth to sell those things next to the candy," Woodhouse said.
"Adults also need to ask themselves if they're the reason their kids are experimenting with these things, too."
Because the group could not visit every convenience store in the city, Bertsch encouraged other stores willing to participate in the safe store program to call New London police at (860) 447-5278.