Downtown Tobacco: A one-stop crack shop?

Police are tired of this Fifth Street tobacconist

On an afternoon in mid-October 2007, a customer walked into Downtown Tobacco on Hennepin Avenue in Minneapolis and asked the clerk for a pack of cigarettes and a "crack kit."

Dutifully, Zanab Hussein Elazab—the clerk working that day—reached under the counter and produced what looked like a pen.

"I asked for a crack kit," the customer repeated.

Elazab nodded. She then unscrewed the pen, exposing the cylindrical glass tube hidden inside.

Satisfied, the customer paid and left.

Unfortunately for Elazab, the customer was a deputy working undercover for the Minneapolis Police Department.

Equally problematic was that police also sent in a criminal informant that same month to help prove that Downtown Tobacco was knowingly peddling crack paraphernalia, according to police records.

For $5 each, the informant bought the same pen and a piece of metal brillo, which is used as a screen in the freebase pipe—just add crack. Clerks even instructed the informant on how to use the kits, so first-timers could avoid any confusion.

This was enough for the police to get a signed search warrant for the shop. Two weeks later, uniformed police officers descended on Downtown Tobacco. The clerks sat at the front of the store while officers spent an hour and a half rifling through the place.

Aside from a box of the crack kits, officers also discovered packs of cigarettes missing the Minnesota tax stamp, according to a police report. Different packs of cigarettes also suspiciously carried the same serial number, some even different brands.

Elazab was charged with a misdemeanor for allegedly distributing paraphernalia.

The raid also put the shop on the radar as a problem business for city inspectors.

Three years later, Downtown Tobacco is the most problematic business in all of downtown Minneapolis, says Grant Wilson, Minneapolis inspections and licensing manager. Since the raid, inspectors have issued the shop 15 citations for violating the terms of its license, totaling almost $8,000.

"I think it was very poor management and no willingness to comply with the laws," says Wilson. "I can't think of anybody else that we've got right now that's up to this level."

The business has also been a problem for police. Just a quarter-mile from Block E and nestled between the light rail and a strip club, the store's corner of downtown is a popular crime location. So far this year, police have been called to incidents outside the building more than 90 times, for everything from drug dealing to assault.

City officials held a meeting last month with Sal Elazab, the shop's owner and brother of Zanab Hussein Elazab. He agreed to let his current license expire at the end of March and shutter the shop.

The City Council accepted the agreement at its November 5 meeting.

For his part, Sal Elazab decries the city's allegations that he runs a problem business—"That's bullshit!" he says.

Instead, the store owner claims that the city has unfairly targeted him in an attempt to run him out of town. He says he chose to give up his license with plans to pursue new ventures.

"I'm giving away the license by myself," he says. "I'm just trying to help the city because they don't want a tobacco [shop] on the corner, so we're going to give them the license."

A year after the 2007 crack kit raid, the Minneapolis City Council decided to make an example out of Downtown Tobacco. As of October 24, 2008, the council amended the shop's license so it could no longer sell any items that even resembled drug paraphernalia. Some items no longer allowed seemed to logically follow, given what officers had found a year earlier—glass pipes, brillo pads—but others are vaguely, if at all, related to narcotics. These included chopsticks, allergy medicine, scissors, and baby laxatives.

The business was also ordered to place a "No Trespassing" sign in the window to deter loiterers and could no longer accept payments of all coins, according to the City Council.

Downtown Tobacco was cited six times the following year for violating terms of the agreement. So far this year, the business has received five more citations.

"It's unfair," says Sal Elazab. "The city was trying to make me hate the business so I would close it, but the business for me is a gold mine. It's a hell of a good place. We have not done anything wrong."

No other downtown business has even close to as many violations as Downtown Tobacco, explains Linda Roberts, who supervises licensing inspections downtown. She adds that it's extremely rare for a business to reach the point when the city determines the only fix is to take away its license.

While there is no hope for Downtown Tobacco, Sal Elazab might get another chance. He plans to apply for another business license that would pick up after the current one expires. If his application is approved, he will pump $1 million into the downtown space and flip it into a three-story nightclub.

The city will have to weigh Sal Elazab's past problems when considering the new license applications, says Roberts, but his status of running the most problematic business in downtown Minneapolis won't necessarily prevent him from opening the club.

"Right now, it has the most challenges and has the most violations," says Roberts. "But it also has the potential to be a positive part of downtown with a different business model."  

 
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