The Fake-Pot Industry Is Coming Down From a Three-Year High
For months, Lila Steinhoff wondered what was going on in the middle bay of the peach-colored warehouse across from her home. When the wind came out of the north or northeast, the pungent stench of nail-polish remover wafted from the small commercial site onto her quiet side street in West Palm Beach. And unlike the other 9-to-5 businesses in the warehouse, the middle bay kept its employees working erratic hours.
"People came and went in the night. It had the strange odor," says Steinhoff, a plump 64-year-old with short silver hair and bifocal glasses. "You live and let live in this neighborhood. But it was a concern enough."
At a quarter past 5 p.m. Monday, May 21, a deafening explosion roared over Steinhoff's head. The walls of her house expanded and contracted, like they had taken a deep breath and let out a sigh of relief that they were still standing.
Thirty yards away, a fury of fire spewed from the warehouse. The metal garage door of the middle bay blasted off its hinges and soared 75 feet before crashing down on a neighbor's roof. Dense waves of noxious black smoke poured into the late-afternoon sky.
Nova Southeastern University Sharks Volleyball
TicketsSat., Oct. 28, 4:00pm
Florida Panthers vs Detroit Red Wings
TicketsSat., Oct. 28, 7:00pm
Miami Heat vs. Boston Celtics
TicketsSat., Oct. 28, 8:00pm
Florida Panthers vs Tampa Bay Lightning
TicketsMon., Oct. 30, 7:30pm
Miami Heat vs. Minnesota Timberwolves
TicketsMon., Oct. 30, 7:30pm
Steinhoff grabbed her phone, called the fire department, and turned on her camera to document the mayhem. Mixed in with the firefighters and police officers was a small unit from the Drug Enforcement Administration working a first-of-its-kind case.
Inside the poorly ventilated space were at least five gallons of acetone — its fumes had fueled the blast — seven industrial cement mixers, and thousands of packets of Mr. Nice Guy herbal incense.
Over the past three years, manufacturers and retailers of so-called herbal incenses have popped up in all 50 states. It quickly became a multibillion-dollar industry built on products that had names like Crazy Eyes, Cowboy Kush, and Skull Killa. Although manufacturers were usually careful to stamp warning labels on the products to avoid liability, users understood that smoking these substances would result in a high because the stuff was soaked with synthetic cannabinoids — man-made chemicals meant to mimic the effects of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the psychoactive component of marijuana.
Until two months ago, many of these herbal incenses remained legal because state and federal lawmakers couldn't keep up with the onslaught of new chemicals being churned out by overseas labs and imported by herbal-incense manufacturers. Whenever the government banned one synthetic cannabinoid, chemists simply tweaked their formulations to concoct new, legal replacements that still got people stoned.
Within this dubious industry, Palm Beach's Mr. Nice Guy earned a reputation as one of the best manufacturers. In just a few hours, it could conjure 15,000 ounces of unnatural intoxication, individually bagged and ready to go. The company offered to ship bulk orders across the country and even trademarked its logo, a yellow smiley face with X's for eyes. Stamped on each package was the ubiquitous but disingenuous boilerplate: "Not for Human Consumption."
At the time of the explosion, the DEA had been collecting Mr. Nice Guy packets from around the nation while trying to piece together a case. It was unclear how the smoldering warehouse at the corner of Georgia Avenue and Wilmot Street was going to affect the ongoing investigation. But with enormous profits at stake and customers across the country clamoring for a legal high, it was a safe bet that whoever was at the controls of Mr. Nice Guy had no plans of slowing down.
Dylan Harrison and John Shealy made a unique entrepreneurial duo.
Harrison, a barrel-chested 31-year-old with a snide grin, co-owned Kavasutra. The Lake Worth hangout specialized in drinks made from the root of a kava plant, which is purported to have a relaxing effect.
Shealy, short and stocky, with lots of tattoos and a trim haircut, grew up in South Carolina. His biological father blew town when he was a kid. From age 10, Shealy was raised by his stepfather, a well-off man who's now a vice president at Johnson Controls, a $22 billion corporation that makes batteries and car parts and employs 140,000 people across six continents. At age 19, Shealy moved to Florida to enter alcohol rehab and hasn't had a drink in the past decade, according to court documents. Now 39, Shealy has owned a few businesses himself, including Serenity Spa and Palm Beach Massage, described by one federal prosecutor as "not therapeutic massage businesses."
In December 2010, Shealy and Harrison established Kratom Labs, the front company for Mr. Nice Guy. The two pushed into the herbal-incense industry at the perfect time. Overhead was low, demand was high, the market hadn't been entirely saturated, and there were few if any laws regulating herbal incense.
To set themselves apart and appear professional, Shealy and Harrison took to clever branding: the smiley-face logo on every foil package, a name made famous by the stoner classic Half Baked, and even a marketing poster that read, "The DEA Wants You to Buy Mr. Nice Guy."
Creating a batch of the incense wasn't hard. The raw materials are relatively cheap and easy to find.
There are three necessary ingredients: dry plant leaves (usually damiana leaf or marshmallow leaf), acetone (the active ingredient in nail-polish remover), and synthetic cannabinoids (white granular chemicals with alphanumeric names like JWH-018, AM-2201, and HU-210).
These chemicals were invented during the '80s and '90s in the labs of legitimate scientists at universities and pharmaceutical companies who had been looking for ways to harness the therapeutic capacity of THC without any of the stoned side effects. After their research hit the pages of scientific journals and seeped onto the internet, rogue chemists with profit motives took it in a different direction.
Nowadays, industrial chemical plants in China and India produce enormous batches of synthetic cannabinoids. They're then sold through websites like Alchemy Incense as "research chemicals" or fertilizer — with a disclaimer that they aren't meant for human consumption.
Transforming the ingredients into a finished herbal-incense product doesn't require a chemistry degree: Manufacturers mix the powdery cannabinoids with acetone, spray the resulting liquid on the plant matter, and wait a few minutes for everything to dry; then the incense is ready to be packaged, shipped, and sold.
It's a wildly lucrative venture. A kilo of cannabinoids typically costs $3,000 to $5,000, though lower prices can be had through bulk purchases and bargain hunting. One kilo can yield roughly an 8,000-gram batch of potent herbal incense. Each gram of the finished product has a retail value of about $10, so a $4,000 investment could generate $80,000 in gross revenue.
Shealy and Harrison scaled up the manufacturing process by renting warehouses to serve as factories and whipping up giant batches of herbal incense in cement mixers. They hired part-time employees to bag up the product. Eventually the pernicious acetone fumes were too much, and the workers started wearing ventilation masks. When a batch was done, some of the part-timers played test dummy and sampled the goods. After doing so, "they became catatonic... [and] could not respond to stimuli," according to court documents.
At full throttle, Shealy and Harrison churned out more than 100 kilograms of Mr. Nice Guy herbal incense a week, or 220 pounds of the stuff.
To move their product out of Palm Beach and across the country, they worked with a small network of distributors. These middlemen would buy thousands of packets of Mr. Nice Guy at a time and resell them to gas stations, head shops, and convenience stores.
Even though herbal incense wasn't illegal, Shealy and Harrison didn't want to flaunt the fact that they were importing massive amounts of gray-market chemicals from China. Shealy had kilos of cannabinoids shipped to his massage parlors; Harrison had them shipped to his mom's house, according to court documents. Shealy used fake names like Ben Wu and John Smith on leases and P.O. boxes. The paper trail ran through six levels of shell companies.
As business grew, the men took aggressive steps to protect their brand. They filed a federal trademark suit against a company they claimed infringed on the Mr. Nice Guy logo. Other tactics were blunter: At one counterculture trade show in Las Vegas, Harrison and Shealy got wind that someone was selling counterfeit Mr. Nice Guy. In response, they trashed the vendor's booth, a federal prosecutor said in court. On another occasion, they allegedly threatened a local distributor to hand over his customer list so they could cut out the middleman. When the distributor refused, they reportedly broke into his car and stole an iPad that contained the list.
Money poured in from their synthetic empire. Harrison purchased an $850,000 house with cash, according to court documents. He stashed $700,000 at a friend's house and $100,000 at his mom's place.
Meanwhile, Shealy dropped $140,000 on two classic cars and bragged about a storage container somewhere along I-95 stuffed with cash. Surveillance cameras were wired around his modest Palm Beach home, where he stockpiled a small arsenal that included a military-grade sniper rifle, an AK-47, a revolver, and three semiautomatic pistols. Shealy had developed a fondness for anabolic steroids and set up what federal prosecutors describe as a "steroid making lab" on his kitchen counter.
Demand for herbal-incense products soared in 2010 and 2011. People could walk into a gas station, spend 20 bucks, and get wrecked on "fake pot" without running afoul of the law for failing drug tests.
Packets of Mr. Nice Guy trickled across the country. It wasn't long before users came to learn that smoking a mix of acetone and Chinese chemicals might not be such a good idea.
A bong hit of herbal incense might result in a euphoric high that resembles the effects of marijuana. Or it might lead to an experience far worse.
Anecdotal evidence overwhelmingly suggests that smoking it can lead to weird and heinous decisions. One 23-year-old guy from Bradenton, Florida, smoked the brand K2, shot a gun in his apartment, and was then arrested while running around naked in the parking lot. Matt Evans, a 21-year-old from Dunmore, Pennsylvania, said he smoked Spice before shaking his girlfriend's 2-month-old son to death. He was sentenced to 40 years.
One of the most widely discussed cases of a synthetic high backfiring happened in Illinois after 19-year-old Max Dobner smoked a bag of iAroma, which he purchased at a cigar shop in a mall.
After a few minutes of stoned, heart-pounding anguish, Dobner called his brother and told him he "smoked that legal stuff" and was freaking out. The older brother advised him to take a shower, eat something, and lie down. Instead, Dobner got into his Chrysler Cirrus and drove 80 to 100 mph through crowded streets. He careened into the small retaining wall of a front-yard garden. His car jumped ten feet into the air and smacked a tree. The engine shot out as the twisted remains of the vehicle smashed through the house. Dobner was dead. There were no skid marks, no sign that he even tried to slow down before the carnage ensued.
A synthetic cannabinoid like JWH-210 — the chemical used in the incense Dobner smoked — is a full agonist of cannabinoid receptors in the brain, known as CB1, meaning it has an affinity for binding to these receptors and activating them. THC, the active substance in natural pot, is only a partial agonist of these receptors. Synthetic cannabinoids "therefore have a greater potential for overdose and severe toxic effect," according to an article published this past April in the Cleveland Clinic Medical Journal.
Empirical evidence of these ill effects is hard to come by, but in 2010, the American Association of Poison Control Centers recorded 2,906 calls related to synthetic marijuana. In 2011, the number of calls spiked to 6,959. The most recent statistics available show that through June of this year, 3,273 such calls were logged.
Also alarming but barely studied is the potential for synthetic cannabinoids to trigger psychotic episodes. "It is possible that psychotic symptoms may be more prominent with synthetic cannabinoids than with natural marijuana because not only are synthetic cannabinoids more potent and work as full agonists, but, unlike marijuana, they do not contain cannabidiol, which is thought to have antipsychotic efficacy," according to the Cleveland Clinic Medical Journal article.
Then there's always the chance that bags of white powdery chemicals from China used to make the incense might be mislabeled and misrepresented by the sellers.
Kevin Shanks, a forensic toxicologist with Indiana-based AIT Laboratories, tested one herbal-incense sample and found phenazepam, a powerful sedative that originated in Russia but is illegal in the U.S. It is sometimes used to treat anxiety, insomnia, and epilepsy.
"The name of the product was Zombie Matter," Shanks tells New Times. "It really does make sense from a marketing standpoint. They're marketing it as something that would zombie-fy somebody, and they put in a very hypnotic drug that would put you into a very sedated, zombie-like state."
Phenazepam has a long half-life, Shanks explains, meaning that it does not clear from the human body quickly. A few straight days of smoking phenazepam-laced Zombie Matter could be lethal.
Shanks also remembers a batch of Funky Monkey that contained the numbing agent lidocaine and a sample of Kick Ass brand incense contaminated with MPPP, a potent stimulant that's more likely to be used in bath salts — synthetic cocaine-like products that are often sold alongside synthetic pot but are chemically and pharmacologically different.
Once the horror stories began to make the news, politicians were quick to champion laws against herbal incense. In 2010, cities and states started banning various synthetic cannabinoids. But the patchwork approach was like a game of Whac-A-Mole: Anytime one synthetic cannabinoid was banned, three new ones popped up to take its place.
"The way that these chemists can turn these things around in a week or two and have them at smoke shops is remarkable," Shanks says.
Boca Raton-based attorneys Thomas Wright and Spencer Siegel are the Saul Goodmans of synthetic cannabinoids.
Wright is the bombastic half of the duo. He looks like a Baldwin brother gone rogue: thick hair, broad shoulders, crystal-blue eyes, and a graying goatee topped off by a New York accent. He smokes Marlboro Blacks, talks at 100 mph, and can't help but go on a tirade when the opportunity presents itself. Always there to reel him in, though, is Siegel, his colleague of 11 years. Siegel, flanked by a black electric guitar and a pyramid-shaped Montecristo humidor, chuckles from behind his desk while Wright hovers and rants about life at the front lines of the new war on drugs.
"A lot of people assume that I'm some kind of kooky drug advocate," Wright says. "I'm actually the opposite. I don't advocate drugs. I lost my brother to heroin; he was a heroin addict for many years, and it destroyed my family... This is not about advocating drugs or anything else. This has to do with laws and the way they're meant to be applied."
After having spent three years in the judicial bowels of the biz, these attorneys can tell endless tales of fortune and enigma. One factory was turning out 4 million bags of incense a week, the lawyers say. Others purchased 100 kilos of cannabinoids at a time. Another had a dozen employees working three shifts a day, seven days a week — the lawyers characterize it as a taxpaying, by-the-books small business. Then there's the guy with no name who disappeared. And, of course, the warehouse that exploded.
Around the same time that Mr. Nice Guy began to be manufactured, the two lawyers' firm, Siegel Siegel & Wright, served as the registered agent for XYZ Widgets, a Boca company founded in February 2010 by Jeffrey Bowman.
XYZ Widgets was the front company for an herbal-incense brand called M@ry Joy. Attorneys Siegel and Wright helped Bowman ensure that his recipe for M@ry Joy was perpetually in line with the law, even if that meant taking bold steps.
At first, M@ry Joy contained a cannabinoid called JWH-018, which in 2010 was legal in the U.S. and a favorite among herbal-incense manufacturers. But on March 1, 2011, the feds took their first major swing at synthetic cannabinoids by using the DEA's emergency scheduling authority to temporarily classify five chemicals, including JWH-018, as Schedule I drugs (along with ecstasy, heroin, and peyote) under the Controlled Substances Act. In doing so, the feds claimed that any analogs of the five banned chemicals — meaning any variations of the drug that were substantially chemically similar, intended for human consumption, and produced similar pharmacological effects — were also illegal under the Federal Analog Act of 1986.
That posed an enormous problem for XYZ Widgets. Bowman, the president, was sitting on 600 pounds of pure, unadulterated JWH-018 and soon-to-be-criminal herbal incense. While he panicked about how to dump the merchandise, Wright and Siegel, his trusted lawyers from day one, were as cool as ever.
"The legal way to get rid of something is to drive it to the police station and let it be disposed of by them," Siegel explains. So the night before the federal ban kicked into effect, the attorneys loaded up Wright's Ford Explorer with $250,000 worth of cannabinoids and incense and drove directly to the Boca Raton Police Department. "We brought it to the front door. A lieutenant came out... and we tried to explain that this stuff was going to be illegal. And not one person in the entire building knew what we were talking about."
Brash and good for the TV cameras that showed up, the stunt didn't mean that XYZ Widgets was throwing in the towel. The company began using AM-2201, another synthetic cannabinoid that many assumed was legal under the DEA's emergency orders.
AM-2201 then became the poster chemical for anyone in the business, including Mr. Nice Guy. Once again, the feds were in the position of playing chemical catch-up. Wright and Siegel reveled in it. They became the go-to attorneys for the synthetic-pot business, landing clients across the country and helping them stay one step ahead of the law.
Today, they represent dozens of people in the herbal-incense trade, from California to New Hampshire, from elder biker-looking dudes to slack-jawed burnouts. Some are manufacturers, some are distributors, and others are retailers, including owners of head shops, gas stations, and corner stores.
Their firm even offers a special compliance and protection package. For $3,500, Siegel and Wright will do their damnedest to make sure all of a client's business practices are 100 percent legal. On the website, incenselaw.com, that advertises the deal, the attorneys say, "The more information we have, the better we are able to protect you. All your information, formulations, and business methods are held in strict confidence."
Siegel and Wright often act as liaison between their clients and private laboratories. The lawyers will have their clients send incense samples to a lab, which runs tests to determine the specific cannabinoids that are showing up in the product. "Then we can issue an opinion as to whether or not that was legal in the jurisdiction where you are or where you want to sell," Siegel says.
If the lab tests show a problem — say, the cannabinoid was recently banned in a particular state or actually turned out to be a powerful hallucinogenic known as 2C-E — Siegel and Wright alert and advise.
Whenever a state or city bans another chemical, Wright and Siegel notify their clients, providing time to rid the banned substance from store shelves and factories, swap in a legal cannabinoid, and return to business as usual.
Wright says the primary purpose of herbal incense is to be used as incense — not as a drug. "If you take blueberry incense and burn it on a hot plate, boy, does it smell a lot like blueberry. It does exactly what it's supposed to do." Still, he advises his clients to be sure all products are stamped with the "Not for Human Consumption" warning because "you can't predict or anticipate misuse of a product."
Some of the public outrage is misguided, he says — like Palm Beach County Commissioner Karen Marcus' assertion that synthetic pot puts holes in the brain, a statement that still makes Wright chuckle.
"You have no scientific research whatsoever, really, that backs up that incense, even if it's misused, is dangerous... We heard it all: 'Smoke it and you'll turn into a 400-pound mountain gorilla that rapes poodles,' " Wright says. "I personally don't think anybody should ever smoke this stuff. I think anybody who is going to put this stuff in their body is taking a huge risk. But because we don't know that exact risk, why do we necessarily have to outlaw it?"
The downfall of Mr. Nice Guy began on New Year's Day of 2012 — in West Virginia. Local police there who were working with the DEA stormed a handful of convenience stores for allegedly violating the DEA's emergency orders. The feds weren't surprised to find packets of Mr. Nice Guy at these retail outlets, but they were intrigued by invoices showing the products were being purchased from a guy in Florida named Joel Lester.
On January 23, three weeks after the West Virginia raids, Lester, the 53-year-old proprietor of a business called Nature & Health in Boca Raton, received a call from a storeowner who said he was interested in selling herbal-incense products. He'd heard that Lester was one of the biggest Mr. Nice Guy distributors and stocked enough at his store to sell 50 or 100 or 1,000 bags in a single transaction. Peppered with questions, Lester explained to the caller that people can smoke incense from a hookah pipe to get stoned.
Three days after the phone call, Lester met the man face-to-face in West Palm Beach to close the sale. Lester told the naive storeowner to think of Mr. Nice Guy as legal pot that wouldn't show up on a drug test. He rambled about how people could smoke it and eat it and said he once got "really stoned" from chewing some herbal incense. Then he brought up Relaxinol, a flavor of Mr. Nice Guy that Lester boasted would give users hallucinations.
Lester hadn't known it, but the supposed storeowner was actually an operative sent in by the DEA. The goal of the undercover operation wasn't just to buy herbal incense, as anyone could have walked in off the street and purchased it at the time. Rather, the goal was to catch Lester on the record explaining that people smoke incense to get high — indisputable evidence that he knowingly sold herbal incense for human consumption.
The operative handed over $300 for 50 packets of five Mr. Nice Guy flavors, including strawberry, mango, and Relaxinol. He later turned them over to the DEA, which tested the products and determined they contained the synthetic cannabinoids AM-2201 and JWH-122 — compounds the agency contends were illegal at the time because they were analogs of JWH-018, one of the chemicals banned in March 2011.
Two months after the undercover buy, the DEA, armed with federal search warrants, paid a visit to Lester's store. It was stocked with "thousands of packages of synthetic cannabinoid products," mostly of the Mr. Nice Guy brand, according to the criminal complaint.
Lester was arrested but decided on the spot to cooperate with the feds. He jumped on the phone and called Harrison, one of the Mr. Nice Guy manufacturers, and arranged a large buy for later that day. At first, Harrison expressed trepidation — word had already spread that police had raided a shop in Boca. But Lester promised all was well.
Mere hours after Lester got popped, a Mr. Nice Guy employee named Michael Bryant met him in a parking lot, completely unaware that a DEA surveillance team was lurking just out of sight. Bryant unloaded three large black trash bags that contained about 15,000 packages of Mr. Nice Guy product, according to court records. In exchange, Lester handed over a business check for $71,250. But the DEA sat tight and held off on arresting Bryant.
Two months later, in May of 2012, Mr. Nice Guy's warehouse exploded, and again, the feds made no arrests. The DEA still had to exercise patience. It wasn't entirely clear whether the analog law and temporary ban on five cannabinoids would be enough to mount a federal case against Mr. Nice Guy. Though politicians in Congress had begun to understand the potential dangers of herbal incense and had even proposed a permanent federal ban, U.S. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky kept blocking the bill with libertarian objections. The DEA opted to wait until Congress could push through the legislation.
On July 9, the agency finally got what it was waiting for when President Obama signed the Food and Drug Administration Safety and Innovation Act. Buried at the bottom of the legislation is a subsection known as the Synthetic Drug Abuse Prevention Act of 2012, which permanently adds a host of synthetic cannabinoids, their analogs, and various chemical compositions to the Controlled Substance Act.
With the legislation signed into law, an undercover buy completed, confidential informants in the wings, and a charred warehouse, the DEA thought it was set to take down the men behind Mr. Nice Guy.
On July 26, two weeks after Obama signed the federal ban, the phones of Siegel Siegel & Wright exploded with calls.
"Everyone was wondering what was going on," Wright recalls. "Word was spreading like a wildfire."
Earlier that morning, dozens of well-armed federal agents, some wearing knit ski masks and sunglasses, scattered through a sprawling parking lot of a West Palm Beach industrial complex, located just ten minutes north of the warehouse that had exploded. The target: a single office at the back of the lot with black plastic garbage bags covering its glass front door — Mr. Nice Guy's new center of operations.
The small army busted into the building and was greeted by the overwhelming stench of acetone and "literally tons" of Mr. Nice Guy product, as a deputy with the Palm Beach Sheriff's Office told TV cameras later that day. The feds finally had the men behind one of the "country's largest distributors" of herbal incense in custody.
Dylan Harrison and John Shealy were arrested and charged with three crimes: unlawful distribution of controlled substance analogs, creating a substance with risk of harm to human life while manufacturing a controlled substance analog, and misbranding drugs with intent to defraud and mislead. Michael Bryant, who delivered the 15,000 packets, was also arrested.
Mr. Nice Guy wasn't the only target that day, though. The DEA was in the midst of Operation Log Jam, a one-day tactical takedown of synthetic-drug manufacturers, distributors, and retailers across more than 30 states.
"I was at home at the time and got a call from a client that Mr. Nice Guy had been raided," Wright says. "It was only an hour or so later that the phones started ringing off the hook from both existing and prospective clients nationwide."
The numbers put out by the feds after the raid are staggering: more than 90 people arrested, nearly $40 million in cash seized, and 5 million packets of finished herbal incense confiscated. In Florida alone, the DEA hauled in 3,346 kilograms of raw synthetic cannabinoids.
Wright sees the raid as an expensive attack on small businesses that were trying to operate legally.
"On day two, we even got a couple of calls from clients who were essentially 'trapped' in their place of business. What I mean is they were in the process of packing up products to have them destroyed or to turn over to law enforcement," he says. "They realized from the news that the DEA was arresting people, and they wanted to dispose of products that were now being considered illegal. There was no opportunity for them to even turn things into law enforcement if they wanted to... The products may have been unpopular, but there was never any intent to break the law."
Now, as the Mr. Nice Guy cases wind their way through court, some experts say Shealy and Harrison were not in fact breaking the law. In the months leading up to the raid, the men changed their cannabinoid formulation to two chemicals known as UR-144 and 5-fluoro-ur-144. The DEA contends that these chemicals are analogs of JWH-018 that were meant for human consumption and thus are illegal under the Synthetic Drug Abuse Prevention Act of 2012.
Not everyone agrees, including Kevin Shanks, the expert toxicologist whose company has been contracted by law enforcement agencies over the years for herbal-incense examinations.
"UR-144 is one of those compounds that is enough structurally different that it would be very, very difficult to prosecute somebody on an analog law," he contends. "If someone is trying to make the case that UR-144 was chemically similar or substantially similar to JWH-018 or AM-2201 or any of the banned compounds, I would think that would be a very difficult task.
"Essentially on 144, they completely change out one subset of the molecule and completely replace it with another chemical group. This isn't a minor change... UR-144 is not going to give you the altered perception, euphoria, impairment of motor skills, or anything like that."
Even if the charges related to controlled substances don't stick, Shealy and Harrison still have to explain why they rented warehouses under fake names and prove they reported every dollar made on their synthetic venture to the IRS. The men are also facing a civil suit from a stone-refinishing shop that occupied the space next to the warehouse bay that exploded. Damages from the blast are in excess of $1 million, according to court documents.
Harrison's and Shealy's arraignments are scheduled for September 24. It's unclear how the men will plead.
Still taped to the door of the raided warehouse is a bright-red piece of paper proclaiming, "WARNING. A clandestine laboratory for the manufacture of illegal drugs and/or hazardous chemicals was seized at this location... There still may be hazardous substances or waste products on this property, either in the building or in the ground itself. Please exercise caution while on these premises."
Until the legality of herbal incense is clarified in the courts, Siegel and Wright are advising clients to cease production, sales, and distribution and to generally stay away from herbal incense. Their longtime client Jeffrey Bowman, president of XYZ Widgets, dissolved his company just three days before Operation Log Jam. Joel Lester, who snitched on Mr. Nice Guy, pleaded guilty to federal distribution charges but served only a few months in prison on a plea deal.
On a near-daily basis, Wright still gets calls from people around the country looking to make and sell incense products. He explains that it's a terrible idea and says they're asking to get arrested. But for many, the temptation of raking in big bucks from cheap synthetic highs is too great. Although herbal incenses are hard to find nowadays, products are for sale online and at unscrupulous shops.
"You can never resolve this kind of problem by taking away the product," Wright says. "The only way you resolve it is by taking away the desire or treating the desire. There's always something else out there. Seriously."
Get the Things to Do Newsletter
Find out about upcoming events and special offers happening in South Florida.