Hitting a bull’s-eye is difficult when the target keeps moving.
That was the dilemma police, prosecutors and lawmakers faced trying to stop over-the-counter sales of chemicals generally known as synthetic marijuana.
As soon as lawmakers banned one substance, manufacturers slightly altered the chemical makeup and got back in business.
“Whether a specific substance was legal or illegal was extremely confusing and complicated,” said Dan Cummings, officer in charge of the Jackson County Drug Task Force.
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Though laws have been changed to cover a broad range of chemical substances, the fallout from that earlier interplay between law enforcement and manufacturers has led to a multimillion-dollar federal lawsuit against Kansas City police.
An Overland Park man who formerly owned a coffee shop in midtown alleges that police subjected him to three years of harassment that resulted in him losing his business and being unfairly prosecuted for alleged crimes for which he eventually was exonerated.
The suit filed this month in U.S. District Court in Kansas City by Micah Riggs names the Kansas City Board of Police Commissioners and nine officers as defendants. It also names the head of Kansas City’s Regulated Industries Division.
According to the suit, Riggs’ first encounter with police came in 2010 when officers responded to a reported robbery at his business, Coffee Wonk, in the 3500 block of Broadway.
It was just a few months after Missouri lawmakers had banned the substance then known as K2 and marketed as “herbal incense.”
In a media interview at the time, Riggs was quoted as saying that since the ban, he was selling a new blend that was stronger and smoother than the banned substance.
“I researched this stuff pretty heavily before I started selling it,” he said in the interview. “I’m not just going to take a risk with people’s health.”
But when officers investigating the robbery saw that he was selling packages of the herbal incense, they confiscated about $48,000 worth of the product. Riggs was charged with several crimes related to the sale of the banned substance. However, the incense did not contain the recently banned chemical, according to the suit.
Police searched the shop again in 2012 and seized additional product. A few months later, in February 2013, police used evidence from that seizure to serve a search warrant and confiscate more of the material being sold. New charges were filed against Riggs. But according to his lawsuit, the substance he was accused of selling was not illegal at the time.
Ultimately, the charges against Riggs were dismissed, or a jury either acquitted him or could not reach a verdict after trial.
In his lawsuit, Riggs said that he “meticulously” followed all controlled substance laws and had the product tested at a laboratory licensed by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
Riggs alleges that he spent about $100,000 defending himself in court and that he lost business opportunities because of the cases filed against him.
“Everything he was doing was legal,” said one of his attorneys, Henry T. Bell. “Because of what happened, he had to close his businesses.”
Kansas City police said that because of the lawsuit, they cannot comment on the allegations.
Though his agency was not involved in the Kansas City case, Cummings of the Jackson County Drug Task Force said that before lawmakers finally passed broader laws to cover whole families of chemicals and their derivatives, the manufacturers typically managed to stay one step ahead of police in the “cat and mouse” contest.
The chemicals began appearing in 2008 and 2009. Numerous reports of people overdosing and being hospitalized prompted lawmakers to begin trying to have them classified as controlled substances.
Users reportedly suffered symptoms such as increased anxiety, panic attacks, heart palpitations, breathing problems, aggression, mood swings, altered perception and paranoia.
Cummings said the chemicals are imported in powder form from overseas, primarily countries in Asia. They are reduced to liquid and sprayed onto some type of vegetation, which the user smokes.
Because of the uneven application of chemicals, the same batch could have some material that was saturated while some could contain just a trace, according to Cummings. The user would have no idea how strong the material was, he said, which often resulted in an overdosed patient in the hospital.
The task force was part of a major law enforcement action last fall on both sides of the state line in which a large amount of synthetic marijuana was seized and more than 30 arrests were made.
Cummings said the investigation is ongoing.
Since then, he said, officials have received very few complaints of the substances being sold openly.
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