Law enforcement officers arrested nine suspected members of an international drug ring that marketed a synthetic form of marijuana called spice, a drug that has been linked to serious illnesses, hallucinations and even death.
“Spice is poison and pain deceptively packaged as pleasure,” said 18th Judicial District Attorney George Brauchler. It is sold in gas stations and corner shops under product names like “Sexy Monkey” and “Crazy Clown.” Some packages are labeled “Not for Human Consumption.”
Beginning at 7 a.m., federal, state and local law enforcement officers from around the country arrested nine people on federal charges originating in Colorado’s Federal District Court. Of those, five face related state charges in Denver and Arapahoe counties, authorities said
In addition, Colorado Attorney General John Suthers announced a lawsuit against Orlando Martinez, owner of O’s Pipe and Tobacco. It was the third such lawsuit against retail businesses accused of marketing Spice, Suthers said. He said 1,320 packages of the drug, worth about $120,000, were seized from the store.
In August and September, 221 people were admitted in Denver-area and Colorado Springs emergency rooms after using Spice. Some victims tried to light themselves on fire, and one person tried to cut his head off, Brauchler said. A 15-year-old Aurora boy died.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declared it a health epidemic at the time. Although most of the victims were between the ages of 12 and 29, one person was 70.
“This is the most significant synthetic drug investigation ever conducted by the Denver field division of DEA and is part of an ongoing international operation conducted by DEA,” said Barbra Roach, special agent in charge of Denver’s DEA office. “This is cutting edge. It is something our labs are seeing for the first time.”
The criminal indictment alleges that the Spice was distributed to Daniel Bernier in Florida. It was then allegedly sprayed onto a “green vegetable substance” and shipped to Colorado, U.S. Attorney John Walsh said.
“Spice is a form of foreign-laboratory-produced poison, and has sent many users to the hospital, or even to the morgue,” Walsh said.
The distribution network allegedly was organized by Bernier and John Bowen under a company named “The Really Cool Stuff Company.” The name of the company was changed to “Heart of Asia.” James Johnson of Castle Rock was allegedly a salesman who worked for the company. Donald Creager III, who runs Creager Mercantile in Denver, was allegedly a wholesaler, Walsh said.
Others allegedly connected to the ring included Altaf Hussain in Illinois and Peter Karfias and Stephanie Christensen of Nebraska.
The defendants face charges including violating the U.S. Controlled Substances Act by distributing banned drugs and possession with intent to distribute a controlled substance. Penalties range from five to 20 years in prison, Walsh said.
In addition to the nine arrests out of the Denver federal court, DEA agents arrested hundreds of people in 25 states across the country in related synthetic marijuana cases.
DEA agents across Colorado and the nation served warrants at homes, warehouses and smoke shops, DEA spokesman Rusty Payne said.
The DEA has been cracking down on synthetic drugs, including so-called bath salts, Spice and Molly, since the drugs first gained widespread popularity years ago. Spice was outlawed in late 2010.
Ferdinand Large, staff coordinator for DEA’s Special Operations Division, said investigators have tracked hundreds of millions of dollars of drug proceeds being sent to Yemen, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. U.S. authorities long have worried about criminal and terrorist groups in the Middle East using drug trafficking to fund illicit activities.
Last year, the DEA and Customs and Border Protection wrapped up a seven-month investigation that ended in 150 arrests and the seizure of about a ton of drugs.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.