DALLAS -- This is just the beginning, DEA officials promised, a day after announcing they had busted up a major synthetic marijuana drug ring.
“This is a shot across the bow -- that we are absolutely looking at the manufacturers and retailers of this product,” said Daniel Salter, acting special agent in charge of the Dallas DEA office.
On Thursday, authorities unsealed federal court papers alleging that The Gas Pipe, a chain of head shops, was stocking its shelves with the illegal drug commonly known as K2, or spice. Authorities seized millions of dollars and are seeking to seize the stores, as well as other property, including Fort Worth’s historic Ridglea Theater.
Jerry Shults, owner of the stores, and his daughters were named in court papers. They have not been charged with crimes. Shults refused to comment Friday, saying he was meeting with his attorney.
In recent months, there have been numerous overdoses and even deaths associated with the drug.
The stance taken by law enforcement and the Department of Justice in terms of asset forfeiture sends a strong message, said Jeff Ansley, a former federal prosecutor who specializes in white-collar fraud cases.
“What this tells us is that the DEA and DOJ, in particular, are being far more aggressive in pursuing these synthetic marijuana cases as, frankly, they probably should be,” Ansley said.
Authorities allege in the court papers that a ring led by Lawrence Shahwan made and distributed spice to other smoke and head shops in the area, including Smokies, Fusion, and Puff and Stuff. He is currently in custody on separate marijuana distribution charges.
The records state that Shahwan “entered into an exclusive contract with the Gas Pipe,” where he agreed the “Gas Pipe would be its sole customer,” in September 2013. It alleges that he constantly changed the chemical makeup of spice in an effort to stay ahead of law enforcement.
“These aren’t scientists,” Salter said. “These are people in a garage or some type of warehouse. The way they determine if this is good is they smoke it and if they get the high that they want, then they say, ‘OK, we’re here,’ and they package it and sell it. If they don’t, they add more.”
On Friday, the Maple Avenue Gas Pipe, where authorities allege employees manufactured the drug, was open for business. An employee denied that the business had been selling the drug.
Court papers also named other shops that the drug ring sold spice to in North Texas, including Puff and Stuff.
At the Puff and Stuff on Columbia Avenue, a man who identified himself as the store’s manager said they no longer sell the substance. He said they stopped doing so about three years ago, once it became illegal.
He also said they'd been fielding calls from customers of the Gas Pipe looking for it. He said they were turning them away.
“The first words out of our mouth was, 'It’s federally banned,' because it’s as bad as having cocaine. You can automatically go to jail,” the manager said.
Salter described a recent encounter where he was getting a haircut and encountered someone selling the drug.
“I saw the guy behind the counter selling,” Salter said. “There was a line of people coming in and out, and he was selling as fast as customers would come in at $40 a bag.”
Salter said he asked him what he was selling. The man replied, “incense.” He said he asked if it was incense, then why was he selling smoking papers with it.
“He said, ‘Well, I don’t know, but this is legal. The DEA said it’s legal,'” Salter said. “He showed me a package and said, 'This is approved by the DEA.'”
Salter said he then moved his coat to reveal his DEA badge. He said he told the man that it was not approved by the DEA.
“He gave me the sample package and we tested it and it was a synthetic cannaboid,” Salter said. “I know this: He’s not selling it anymore.