The Drug Enforcement Administration on Wednesday launched a massive nationwide campaign aimed at distributors of herbal incense, or synthetic pot. All said, the feds arrested 90 people and seized "more than five million packets of finished synthetic designer drugs," including bath salts and incense.
Several warehouses and distributors in the West Palm Beach area were raided. Dylan Harrison, John Shealy, and Michael Bryant are among those arrested and charged with distributing "Mr. Nice Guy" brand herbal incense.
But local attorney Thomas Wright has some concerns about the DEA's operation.
"The burning question is what the hell is illegal and what's not," says Wright, who has worked on myriad cases involving synthetic drugs. "It almost seems like the DEA is going a little backwards on us."
Wright points out that states have scrambled to ban these substances but that the manufacturers just change the chemical compound so they're not in violation of the law.
"The DEA is taking the position that these guys are drug dealers. I've never heard of guys establishing corporations for cocaine. These guys are in plain sight and sell their stuff to gas stations and corner stores. Nobody goes to Exxon for an eight ball," Wright says.
According to a statement, the DEA "used its emergency scheduling authority" to combat synthetic cannabinoids and synthetic cathinones, meaning that the substances have been temporarily placed on the Controlled Substance Act.
Wright raised concerns about the ambiguity of this move. He points to Colorado as a state that made the law clear by essentially banning synthetic cannabinoids and all analogs.
The DEA noted in a statement that these drugs have not been approved by the FDA for human consumption, and that there's no oversight of the manufacturing process. The agency said that poison centers around the country in 2010 responded to 3,200 calls about bath salts and herbal incenses.
Again, Thomas has his doubts. "It's a lot of political fluff," he says. "If we allegedly have millions and millions of people allegedly abusing this stuff, why aren't hospitals filled with bodies?"
Thomas predicts that the DEA's operation will deal a severe blow to the synthetic-drug industry, at least for now. He says his phone was ringing for 14 hours yesterday from people around the country unsure of how to handle the situation.
"It's going to have a hell of an impact," he says. "I've told clients who aren't having problems that they don't want to be doing anything or holding the proverbial bag until there's some type of determination."
As for having a long-term impact, Thomas contends that the DEA has done absolutely nothing to quell demand and that the American public will find new products to get high off of.
"It's not going to end; it's just going to keep changing. Incense in its current incarnation will slow down," he says. "But it still doesn't change anything when you've got a society that has some kind of burning desire to find creative ways to alter reality."
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