Police seize synthetic marijuana in local sweep

Dur­ing a sweep of North­east Phil­adelphia stores last week, po­lice seized more than $200,000 in drug paraphernalia

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.

• • •

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.

• • •

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.”

• • •

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. 

• • •

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 jloftus@bsmphilly.com

You can reach at jloftus@bsmphilly.com.

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