November 26, 2014
Three business operators in Fairbanks have been federally charged for selling misbranded Spice, or synthetic marijuana -- the first time the government has sought to charge Alaska head shop owners for selling the over-the-counter drugs.
Brandon Michael Newman, operator of The Scentz; Richard Stanley Krakowski of Mr. Rock & Roll; and Nan Young Siddiqui of The Smoke Shop have been charged with “delivery of misbranded drugs received in interstate commerce,” a misdemeanor. Newman faces one count; Krakowski and Siddiqui face two counts each, according to charges filed in mid-November.
Interstate commerce, the movement of the drugs across state lines or from foreign countries, is necessary for federal jurisdiction, said Assistant U.S. Attorney James Barkeley. Under the law, "drug" is defined as anything intended to have or that has an effect on the human body, he said.
“It’s a very broad definition that encompasses non-prescription drugs, over-the-counter substances and other substances -- stuff outside the realm of what we normally see in federal court,” Barkeley said. “It covers a lot of things, but the key allegation is that these packets of Spice … were falsely labeled as something that was not intended for human consumption when in fact they were sold expressly for that purpose.”
The legal approach is similar to a new Alaska law that went into effect last month. The law banned Spice and other synthetic drugs, often called bath salts, based on their packaging. It imposes a fine on anyone who possesses, advertises or sells the drugs.
Smoke shop sting
A federal sting in May 2013 on the three head shops led to the seizure of cash and silver bars, guns and more than $750,000 of Spice, according to federal search warrants.
But the substances did not violate federal law, authorities said at that time.
In place of criminal charges, the U.S. Attorney’s Office District of Alaska filed civil complaints against the business owners, essentially challenging them to argue for their belongings and why they were not the result of proceeds from an illegal drug trade.
Representatives of the raided shops indicated in court documents they intended to get their stuff back. A manager with Mr. Rock & Roll said the allegations were unfounded and items were unlawfully seized.
The seizures are called civil forfeitures -- the government charges property rather than individuals. The civil lawsuits allow prosecutors to seize property months or years before criminal indictments are prepared. That’s what happened in these cases. U.S. District Court Judge Ralph Beistline granted stays on the lawsuits shortly after the raids.
Now, criminal charges allege the owners had kilos of “misbranded drugs” delivered to their businesses and intended to sell them to customers. At The Scentz, there were “approximately 4.8 kilograms (about 10.5 pounds) of the drugs packaged and labeled as ‘Vato Locos,’ being misbranded as scented ‘potpourri’ in a manner indicating that they were not for human consumption when in fact” they were, the court document says.
The government alleges the same for Krakowski’s business, Mr. Rock & Roll. Barkeley wrote in the criminal information sheet against the business that the defendant planned to sell 51 grams of “Black Sabbath” and “Hysteria,” and a second count includes nearly 3 pounds of “Black Mamba.”
Siddiqui allegedly possessed a similar amount of the designer chemical drugs, which were labeled “Mind Eraser” and “Chronic.”
The misdemeanor charges, Barkeley said, are essentially a warning. If the businesses federal prosecutors have targeted continue to sell the drugs, and the cases result in convictions, felony offenses are pursuable.
The new state law mimics some of the wording in an Anchorage ordinance that the Assembly passedin January in an effort to crack down on a problem police argued was plaguing Alaska’s largest city.
Synthetic drugs were popping up in communities statewide. In April, the Wasilla City Council voted to create a ban similar to Anchorage’s.
Several month later, Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell signed Senate Bill 173, which made the sale of designer drugs illegal in the state. As of last month, a strategy was still being crafted on how to handle enforcement of the law, said John Novak, assistant attorney general with the Alaska Department of Law.
The federal search warrants for the Fairbanks shops were executed prior to the change in state law, Barkeley said.
“Maybe a different result would have come today, and perhaps the state would take the lead on these cases, but the federal government acted first, got the evidence, and the stores stopped selling these poisons,” he said.
Kevin Feldis, Criminal Division chief of the Alaska U.S. Attorney’s Office, said the cases were coordinated with state and local authorities.
“We’re working with partners who are all trying to tackle a similar problem,” Feldis said.
Despite prosecutors’ initial approach of civil lawsuits aimed at holding the Fairbanks businesses accountable, Barkeley said the government started pursuing Spice dealers as a nationwide initiative “about a year ago.” The District of Alaska is not the first office to take Spice head on, he said.
The trial of Jim Carlson, owner and operator of the Last Place on Earth in Duluth, Minnesota, was a first major test in federal court of how effectively authorities could combat designer drugs, theAssociated Press reported.
Prosecutors argued Carlson knew he was selling recreational drugs that people used to get high. They charged Carlson under several federal laws including one against “analogue” drugs, defined as substances already on the government’s official list. Makers of the drugs have tweaked the composition of the drugs, part of what makes prosecution difficult. He was also charged with selling mislabeled drugs.
“The results of the case, which included charges we have alleged in our information sheets, were unanimously in favor of the government,” Barkeley said.
Carlson was found guilty on 51 of 55 counts, the AP reported. In August, he was sentenced to 17 1/2 years in prison.
In the Fairbanks cases, none of the owners have stepped into court to address the misdemeanors. Summonses were issued Friday for all of the men to appear for preliminary hearings on Dec. 18.