Police seized synthetic marijuana and drug paraphernalia from two Northeast Philadelphia stores on Wednesday and Thursday as part of a statewide law-enforcement sweep called “Operation Artificial High.”
Drug paraphernalia worth more than $200,000 was seized Thursday from the 1 Stop Smoke Shop on the 10000 block of Verree Road, Deputy state Attorney General Kate Gibson said. Also confiscated was a small amount of synthetic marijuana, illegal in Pennsylvania since last August. Synthetic pot retails under names such as Kush, K2, Spice, Herbal Smoke and Cloud Nine were confiscated.
A Lukoil gas station at 9100 Frankford Ave. was raided Wednesday. Drug paraphernalia was seized there, Gibson said. Undercover investigators had been making buys since May from a clerk at that location, she said, adding that the man even went to Grant Avenue and Academy Road to make deliveries of synthetic marijuana to state agents.
Five other locations in Philadelphia — all along South Street — were raided by narcotics agents and state troopers, Gibson said.
The five South Street stores were raided before the Verree Road store was hit, Gibson said Friday.
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Kamel Gerges, proprietor of the 1 Stop Smoke Shop, was arrested Thursday, Gibson said. Gerges, who Gibson said gave two different ages — 32 and 33 — faces more than 40 years in prison if convicted of possession of drugs with intent to distribute, criminal conspiracy and related charges, she estimated. Gibson said authorities believe Gerges had supplied the South Street stores.
Gibson said Gerges, an Egyptian citizen, had heard the five South Street locations were raided and had gotten rid of most of the synthetic drugs in his shop before agents raided it Thursday. Only a small amount was found.
“Apparently, he knew,” Gibson said of Gerges.
Also raided Thursday was Gerges’ Philmont Heights home, where investigators found bank records and a small amount of synthetic marijuana.
Some of the paraphernalia seized at Gerges’ store consisted of secret compartments to hide drugs, Gibson said.
Agents saw what looked like pallets of soda cans, but were actually false-topped cans in which drugs could be stowed. Other false-topped or false-bottomed containers were salt cans, shaving cream cans or water bottles, she said.
Gerges is not cooperating with authorities, so it is not known who supplied him with the drugs, Gibson said.
Large amounts of synthetic drugs were found in a warehouse outside Wilkes-Barre, she said. On South Street, agents found more than 300 packages of synthetic marijuana labeled as “Scoobie Snacks,” she said.
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More than 50 search warrants were executed statewide during the crackdown on trafficking and sale of synthetic drugs, resulting in the seizure of more than 300,000 doses of synthetic drugs with an estimated street value of $1.25 million.
More than 50,000 pieces of drug paraphernalia related to smoking or consuming synthetic drugs were seized along with about $250,000 in cash and assets, the attorney general’s office said.
Search warrants were served in residences, convenience stores, gas stations, smoke shops and similar businesses in the city and in Allegheny, Lehigh, Luzerne, Montgomery, Northampton, Washington and Westmoreland counties, according to a news release from Attorney General Linda Kelly and State Police Commissioner Frank Noonan.
“These man-made chemicals have triggered a wave of bizarre and violent reactions, medical emergencies and deaths across the country since they began appearing on the street in 2009,” Kelly said. “These substances were prohibited because they are threat to the health and safety of our communities. This ban cannot be skirted by rebranding these hazardous drugs as ‘window cleaner,’ ‘plant food,’ ‘incense,’ ‘not for human consumption’ or by moving them behind the counter.”
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A year ago, synthetic marijuana wasn’t illegal nor even particularly well-known. However, it had been an easy-to-find, easy-to-buy item at local stores.
Many of the chemicals — synthetic cannabanoids — used to make Kush and K2, are imported from China or India in powder form. They’re mixed with liquids and sprayed on a variety of dried leaves, federal officials say. They’re often for sale in small foil envelopes in small stores and gas stations and are seen as safe, legal, low-cost highs that don’t show up in any but the most sophisticated urine tests.
As designer drugs, synthetic cannabanoids were legal because their chemical formulas did not exactly match substances that were illegal. But that’s no longer true. Last August, Pennsylvania outlawed eight of the chemicals used to make synthetic marijuana.
But making something illegal doesn’t make it unpopular.
Smoking synthetic marijuana is so widespread that it is now considered second to real marijuana as the drug most abused by American teens. According to the White House, one in nine U.S. 12th-graders had used it in 2011.
The appeal grows despite synthetic marijuana’s very dark side. Besides getting high, users have reported elevated blood pressure, hallucinations, racing hearts and the shakes, federal officials reported.
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Before the Operation Artificial High raids, agents and troopers made a series of undercover purchases, recorded transactions and surveillance to identify many of the people and businesses allegedly involved in the distribution and sale of the illegal synthetic drugs.
In Philadelphia, the Attorney General’s Bureau of Narcotic Investigation and Drug Strike Force programs, the state police, Philadelphia police and the Philadelphia district attorney’s office were among the agencies involved in the operation.
In June, U.S. House and Senate negotiators agreed to legislation that would ban 26 synthetic drugs, 15 of them synthetic cannabanoids, by adding them to the Controlled Substances Act. The drugs include those commonly found in products marketed as “K2” and “Spice,” the Drug Enforcement Administration reported.
The American Association of Poison Control Centers reported that it received 6,959 phone calls related to synthetic marijuana in 2011, up from 2,906 in 2010, according to a DEA news release.
Hundreds of cannabanoids are not, or not yet, illegal, Edward Dugan, lab manager for the Philadelphia Police Department’s forensic science bureau, told the Northeast Times in April. The police lab now has tests that can spot synthetic cannabanoids. Dugan said in April he had recently seen two that were not banned, but they were mixed with substances that were outlawed.
Storeowners who believe they are selling legal products might not be, and in doing so, they are taking big risks, Dugan said. And that’s not just the risks of getting into trouble with the law.
“You don’t know what it’s going to do to your customers,” Michael Garvey Jr., the forensic science bureau’s director, said in April. ••
Reporter John Loftus can be reached at 215-354-3110 or firstname.lastname@example.org