CORRECTION: This story originally misidentified the owner of Shipping on the Hill. The owner's name is Mike Clear.
If a person comes into Boulder's Shipping on the Hill today with a package smelling of marijuana, he or she might get a gentle reminder from the clerk that it's a "bad idea" to try and distribute drugs via the mail.
Such a conversation might not have happened a year ago, but those types of employee reminders are the result of new policies at Shipping on the Hill, 1321 College Ave., in its effort to both do the right thing and best serve its customers when it comes to suspicious packages.
In addition to trying to stop customers from mailing illegal packages in the first place, another of the business' new policies requires employees to notify the store's owner before examining parcels believed to contain something illegal -- like drugs. Once owner Mike Clear is informed of a possibly illegal package, he now requires authorities to get a search warrant before investigating further, Clear said.
The changes come in response to negative feedback following a poll of University of Colorado students and an April news report on a Shipping on the Hill employee who discovered drugs while going through a magazine that a man paid to ship, Clear said.
"There was a resonating awareness among the student population that folks had tried and failed to ship drugs, and that gave us a bad rap," Clear said. "So we changed some policies and now have a process of trying to talk students out of doing things illegally.
"We are here to serve the students, not to cause them problems."
If an employee doesn't have a chance to stop a suspicious sender from leaving his or her package, and the store ends up with a parcel that they suspect contains drugs -- or any substance illegal to ship, including wine or perfume -- Clear said he has to call authorities to avoid getting penalized. The maximum penalty for a storeowner convicted of sending any illegal or hazardous material is a $50,000 fine and five years in prison, Clear said.
"No one, to my knowledge, has been apprehended or fined as a store owner," he said. "But if it was going to be a landmark case, it would be my store, or a store in Oregon to set the stage, and I don't want to do that."
The store's new policy to first notify Clear and then ask investigators to get a search warrant before going through a suspicious package aims to avoid a repeat of events that led to a 23-year-old Boulder man's arrest on April 14. He was arrested on suspicion of unlawful possession and attempt to distribute Ecstasy after he brought a Penthouse magazine to Shipping on the Hill and paid to have it shipped overnight to an address in California.
After the suspect left the store, according to police, a clerk became suspicious about why someone would want to ship a men's magazine at the overnight rates and began flipping through the pages. Inside, police reported, the clerk found eight packets of white powder.
News stories about how police learned of the distribution case brought a flood of criticism to Clear and his shop.
"It made me rethink how we provide information to authorities," he said.
Clear said all businesses like his are responsible for preventing the shipping of "hazardous, illegal, prohibited, dangerous or restricted" goods including perfume, spray paint, wine and cigarettes. He said those items make up the majority of the packages that can't be shipped, but his staff occasionally comes across illegal drugs smuggled into things like coffee cans or cereal boxes.
Under the store's new policy, Clear said, if an employee identifies when a person is up to no good, he or she might ask a person who's trying to overnight their favorite "snack" to consider the consequences.
"We present to them that there's an option not to do what you're going to do," he said.
But it's not always easy to know when someone is sending something illegal, Clear said, even though "a substance like marijuana presents itself quite well."
In the case of two suspicious jars of peanut butter brought to Shipping on the Hill in December, employee Nicholas Miranda said he became suspicious after looking at the address on the package, according to a search warrant for the Kroger brand of butter. It was being sent to a company in St. Louis, but instead of a suite number, it included an apartment number.
"Miranda found this to be out of the ordinary," according to the warrant.
Investigators found the jars of peanut butter to have been previously opened and their contents "disturbed," the warrant said. After further investigation, and with the help of the search warrant, investigators found about seven grams of suspected marijuana smuggled in the jars.
"Marijuana gives off a strong odor," according to the warrant. "By concealing marijuana inside of a peanut butter jar, the shipper often hopes to obscure this odor."
According to another recent warrant granted for a package brought to Shipping on the Hill, investigators found a bag containing suspected drugs surrounded by coffee grounds inside a taped-up Apple Jacks cereal box.
In the search warrant, Shipping on the Hill employees reported having discovered "numerous illicit shipments of marijuana this year." Sgt. Barry Hartkopp, with the Boulder County Drug Task Force, said attempted drug deliveries out of shipping businesses have been a problem for years.
"It is something that keeps popping up," he said.