The Investigators: Texas' ban on synthetic marijuana

By Field Sutton & Kenneth Dean

(KYTX & TYLER MORNING TELEGRAPH) -- It's been more than 2 years since a long list of East Texas cities banned synthetic marijuana--commonly known as K2. The State of Texas banned it one year later.

Synthetic marijuana is made of herbs that are soaked in chemicals to get you high. Doctors have always said it's downright dangerous. And, based on reports that it was still readily available in East Texas, The Investigators went undercover to see how easy it would be to get our hands on it.

We started in Smith County on Highway 271. Our first stop was the Lonestarr Gift Shop. Because synthetic marijuana is illegal, it's kind of a game--trying to talk about it without talking about it.

"You got any incense?" the Tyler Morning Telegraph's Kenneth Dean asked when we walked inside.

"Um we have like sticks, cones, oils. Are you looking for potpourri?" the clerk said.

"Potpourri" is just one of a long list of slang words for telling people in the know you want to get high. We picked their top seller. It was marked "hypnotic."

Across town the Valero Minute Stop convenience store on Highway 64 west had a large selection set up right next to the cash register.

"You got any K2?" Dean asked the employee inside.

"K2?" the employee said.

"Yeah K2," Dean said.

"I don't sell K2," the employee said.

"You got anything like K2?" Dean asked.

"Nah but we've got incense," the employee said. "K2 was outlawed a long time ago. This is certified by the FDA."

Certified by the Food and Drug Administration? Statements like that are ruffling feathers at the Tyler Police Department because they know it's all coming from overseas.

"[The companies that make synthetic marijuana are] not bound by the same laws that we are here in the United States," an undercover Tyler PD narcotics officer said.

The officer told us he started fighting synthetic marijuana six years ago.

"You've got some young, seemingly healthy people that are smoking this stuff and they die of a heart attack immediately thereafter," the undercover officer said.

His fight may be working because we couldn't find any synthetic marijuana inside the Tyler city limits. He said the police department has asked for and gotten voluntary compliance from Tyler store owners, who agree not to sell synthetic marijuana based on the threat of future prosecution.

"They know people are using this and smoking it to get high," the undercover officer said.

State legislators amended the Texas Controlled Substances Act in 2011 to include a section on synthetic marijuana, including a list of chemicals used to make it.

The problem is law enforcement agencies know that all the "potpourri" and "incense" is synthetic marijuana. But proving it is a lot more difficult. The world of synthetic drugs is kind of like the word magnet game on your refrigerator. The drug makers just put the pieces in a different order. Together they still get you high. But they also make up something new that's not in the state's list.

"They have different appearances, they have different odors, and it takes a while to get the lab results back from the DPS laboratory for us," the undercover officer said.

All East Texas law enforcement agencies rely on chemists at the Texas Department of Public Safety to test suspected synthetic marijuana and prove that a specific sample is illegal.

But DPS Trooper Jeanne Dark said it's like trying to hit a moving target. Every time the drug makers come up with a new blend, the chemists have to create a new test to prove it'll get you high. It just takes too long.

We also knew the real K2 was still being sold online. So we went to one of the websites and gave them nothing more than Field Sutton's real name and address. The site did not ask for a credit card or any assurance that the buyer is an adult. Five days later we got a notice from the postal service saying we had a package waiting at the Tyler Post Office. It said to bring cash or a money order to pay for it COD.

The postal workers had no way of knowing what was inside, but we knew it was the K2 we ordered. Unlike the other products we bought for this story, there is no gray area when it comes to name-brand K2. It's already been proven illegal. So we rejected the package.

Before rejecting it, we asked the postal worker on duty whether a COD package requires any identification upon pickup.

"You can pick them up, whoever signs," she said. "It's not restricted. So as long as they bring the money in."

U.S. Postal Inspector Mona Hernandez said both the company and the individual recipient involved in transporting synthetic marijuana across state lines are committing a Federal crime. The post office seizes tens of thousands of pounds of marijuana and synthetic marijuana each year.

"Our primary objectives are to rid the mail of illicit drug trafficking, preserve the integrity of the mail and, most important, provide a safe environment for postal employees and the American public," Hernandez said.

From Tyler we headed to Longview. At the Glass Dragon they offered us a product called Sonic.

"It's nothing like K2," the clerk said. "K2 is illegal you know."

Just down the road, Trifecta Body Art steered us away from the synthetic marijuana. The clerk said he couldn't legally talk about it. But he could tell us about "Kratom," which came in a small pouch containing a number of large pill-like capsules.

"It provides an opiate-like effect for several hours," the clerk said. "I just took some 20 minutes ago and it takes about 30 to 40 minutes to hit you."

"So this is perfectly legal then?" Dean asked.

"Yes," The Clerk said.

We showed video of the clerk at Trifecta--captured using a hidden camera--to Longview Police Officer Kristy Brian. She said the clerk describing the drug like that was perfectly legal. But selling it could be a problem.

"Right off the bat [the packaging] speaks volumes to say 'take this,' because it's a capsule just like you take your vitamins," Brian said.

Just like everything we bought, the Kratom was marked as "not for human consumption." Brian and the undercover officer in Tyler agreed: that gets ignored.

We asked Brian why it seemed to be easier to get these synthetic drugs in Longview than it is in Tyler. She said Longview's enforcement of the state's ban has been mostly complaint driven. And there haven't been many complaints.

She said she'll show the department's narcotics officers what we bought and let them know where we got it.

Asked whether the law could be broadened to make enforcement easier, Brian said she didn't think that would work because making a tight case requires the law to specifically enumerate every chemical involved in the production of synthetic marijuana.

Possession and distribution of synthetic marijuana is punished similarly under Texas law to the possession and distribution of the natural variety.

Texas has not outlawed Kratom, which is an entirely different class of synthetic drug.

We turned all of the items purchased over to the Tyler Police Department following the conclusion of this investigation.


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