CENTENNIAL, Colo. — Why would someone in Colorado, a state where you can now buy marijuana legally, purchase the synthetic drug commonly known as “Spice?” Considering the drug’s obscurity, the complicated process of manufacturing it, and the fact that it’s as dangerous as it is illegal — both locally and federally — why would anyone want to sell it?
And finally, is it even appropriate to call this stuff synthetic marijuana?
The answers to all those questions were given at a joint task force press conference hosted by the Denver division of the Drug Enforcement Agency, which announced what it called a “significant” regional and national bust on “Spice” sellers and manufacturers Wednesday.
John Walsh, the U.S. District Attorney for Colorado, began the press conference by announcing that shortly after 7 a.m. Wednesday, the task force made “Spice”-related arrests in Colorado, Florida, Wisconsin and Nevada after an eight-month long investigation that spanned across nine states.
At a local level, the Colorado Attorney General’s office filed a civil lawsuit against Orlando Martinez, who is accused of selling “Spice” products at his Denver store, O’s Pipes & Tobacco. Approximately 1,320 packages of “Spice” with an estimated street value of $120,000 were reportedly seized from the store.
The products being sold by Martinez allegedly contributed to the “Spice” outbreak in Denver last year that left 220 hospitalized and one dead. Interestingly enough, Colorado Attorney Genergal John Suthers said, there was a bit of a common thread among the 220 hospitalized for “Spice” exposure.
“Many of them were using ‘Spice’ to try to evade a drug test,” Suthers said. “They were trying to get the high without testing positive.”
The one confirmed fatality from last year’s outbreak was a 15-year-old from Aurora, and the city’s police chief Dan Oates said his department raided 10 Aurora stores that were believed to be selling “Spice” on Wednesday. Though no actual “Spice” products were found as a result of those raids, Oates confirmed his department made “Spice”-related arrests at four stores, Paymon’s Market, Puffin Jewelry, Mixed Up and Star Mart.
Throughout the press conference, all those who spoke seemed to echo the sentiments of George Brauchler, District Attorney for the 18th Judicial District, which includes Arapahoe and Douglas counties:
“Synthetic marijuana is the term that’s being thrown around to describe this drug,” Brauchler said. “We want to be emphatic: This has nothing to do with marijuana.”
Instead, Brauchler and Walsh continued to insist, referring to this substance as “Spice,” its most-common street name, or as a synthetic cannabinoid is most appropriate.
Among the most prominent of the arrests made Wednesday were former Castle Rock resident John Bowen and Daniel Bernier, both of whom were charged as the co-leaders of an international “Spice” syndicate.
DEA spokesperson Barbara Roach said the two’s operation started at factories in China, where all the chemicals to make their “Spice” were made.
From there, the chemicals were reportedly exported to Florida, where quasi-chemists, as Roach described them, took the raw chemical powder, dissolved it in some kind of solution, heated it then sprayed it over various types of potpourri. Though there have been reports that the substance has been sprayed on actual marijuana plants, Roach said the task force investigation indicated it was most often sprayed on a potpourri substance that “looks like marijuana.”
“That material typically comes from the Middle East or Mexican, and costs around $2,500 per metric ton, which is incredibly cheap,” Roach said.
And therein lies the motivation for “Spice” producers and sellers, Roach said: Costs of producing the drug are low and profit margins are high. She said syndicate leaders like Bowen and Bernier, who had also allegedly developed a “Spice” cartridge that could be smoked in e-cigarettes, were making around $250,000 per month.
Another alleged conspirator in the syndicate who was taken into custody this week was Donald Creager, III, who is accused of selling Bowen and Bernier’s products through his wholesale warehouse in Denver, Creager Mercantile, to local businesses.
Johnson, Martinez and Creager will all make their initial court appearances Thursday at 2 p.m. before a U.S. Magistrate Judge, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
Those products often times ended up on store selves in Colorado convenience stores, head shops and gas stations, being sold in plain sight alongside legal products.
Walsh acknowledged the fact that there is some legal gray area with “Spice,” considering the drug is often sold in packaging that includes the label, “Not for human consumption.” But he didn’t suspect his office would have a great deal of difficultly tackling that legal debate.
“In spite of the “Not for human ingestion’ labels, this substance is expressly intended for that purpose,” Walsh said. “And if what you are introducing into the market is not only intended but designed to have a certain effect on the human body or brain, that is illegal under state and federal law.”