Despite the growing recognition of its dangerous side effects, the synthetic marijuana industry has been able to keep a step ahead of law enforcement efforts to stop its open sale.
That ended in a big way in the Kansas City area Tuesday, as police officers swept across the metropolitan area in a coordinated attack on those who traffic in the drug.
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The raids resulted from investigations that began as far back as mid-2012 — inquiries that were prolonged by complicated lab tests that had to be conducted on the ever-evolving substances commonly called K2 or spice.
About a dozen local, state and federal law enforcement agencies took part in Tuesday’s operation, which targeted gas stations, convenience stores and other businesses selling the substances.
Officers served 45 search warrants in the Kansas City area and Topeka and made 31 arrests. By midafternoon Tuesday, about 24,000 individual packets of drugs had been seized along with more that $100,000 in cash.
“This is just the beginning of the operation,” said Assistant Jackson County Prosecutor Michael Hunt. “Our goal is to stop the trafficking of this illegal drug. We’ve had kids put in the hospital and who have died from this.”
The substances are typically sold as colorfully named and packaged products, often labeled as incense or potpourri. They are readily available online, and as Tuesday’s police action showed, at a number of retail establishments.
The drugs are often marked as “not for human consumption,” but they are typically smoked and purportedly mimic the effects of marijuana. But a number of serious health problems and deaths across the country have been attributed to ingestion of the substances, which has prompted the efforts to make them illegal.
Lawmakers in Kansas and Missouri have passed laws to criminalize the chemicals used to produce the substances, but producers of the drugs thwarted those efforts by tweaking their chemical formulas just enough to skirt those laws.
But both states have now passed broader legislation to encompass the whole class of chemicals used to make K2.
Tuesday’s sweep was months in the planning, according to law enforcement officials.
At 11 a.m. Tuesday, Kansas City, Kan., police served search warrants at eight businesses and three private homes, including one in Lenexa. The affected businesses were shut down while officers processed the scenes for evidence.
Gladstone police targeted three businesses in their city. Topeka police said they also served warrants at eight businesses in their area.
Kansas City, Kan., Police Detective Darren Koberlein said Tuesday’s action was the culmination of an investigation that began in June 2012.
But unlike more traditional drug investigations where officers can conduct field tests to detect the presence of cocaine or marijuana and make an immediate arrest, the investigation into K2 requires more detailed laboratory testing that can take months to complete, Koberlein said.
Dan Cummings, officer in charge of the Jackson County Drug Task Force, said that an investigation in conjunction with Independence police started on the Missouri side at the beginning of 2013.
Cummings said that the base chemicals used to manufacture the substances are illegally imported from Asia. The packages being sold to users typically cost about $10 per gram, he said.
Said Hunt, the prosecutor: “As the size of today’s operation indicates, a lot of money is changing hands.”
Koberlein said that the types of the drugs being sold today are much more potent than marijuana and the types of K2 seen just a few years ago.
He said they are targeted to teenagers and young adults, and a number of bad reactions and overdoses have been documented.
“It’s just disgusting,” he said of some of the effects he’s seen on users.
Reported side effects include elevated heart rate and blood pressure, seizures, kidney damage and heart attacks. A study by the American Psychiatric Association found that some users of K2 and substances like it end up suffering “prolonged psychotic episodes” that include paranoid delusions and visual and auditory hallucinations.
Last week, a Gladstone teenager pleaded guilty to causing the Platte County traffic crash death of a woman that occurred last October while he was under the influence of synthetic marijuana.
The death of 25-year-old Ashley R. Miller in that wreck has also prompted a wrongful-death lawsuit against the driver, 18-year-old Logan T. Pope, and the owners of the Gladstone smoke shop where he allegedly bought the synthetic marijuana.
Officials said Tuesday that investigations into the sale of the substances is continuing, and said they hoped it would send a message to others who think it’s OK to sell the drugs.
“If you’re selling this stuff, we’re coming after you,” Hunt said.