BRIDGEPORT -- One year before state and federal task forces raided a multimillion-dollar synthetic drug operation in the city's Innovation Center, police were called to the center for a "suspicious package."
The box contained some plant-like matter and white powder, but tests on the material came back negative for hallucinogenic drugs and the box was given back to its owner, Michael Young, who police said was running the operation.
And that's the difficulty identifying synthetic drugs such as Spice, synthetic marijuana and Bath Salts, which are flooding the country, according to local, state and federal law enforcement.
"To me it looked like potpourri," said one of the narcotics and vice detectives who looked in the box.
"It looks like potpourri that you might find in a bowl on your mother's dining room table," said Police Department spokesman William Kaempffer.
"It doesn't look like marijuana. Tests by police field kits will come back negative, and they were conducted by the detectives in this case."
He said synthetic marijuana generally is legal potpourri or a similar product that is sprayed with a synthetic chemical compound similar to THC, the psychoactive ingredients in marijuana.
The only way to determine if it is laced with these chemicals is to send it to a laboratory for analysis, Kaempffer said.
Synthetic cannabinoids on plant material were first reported in the U.S. in December 2008, when a shipment of "Spice" was seized by U.S. Customs in Dayton, Ohio. According to a University of Michigan study, synthetic marijuana now makes up 11.3 percent of the drug use by high school seniors.
"Today, synthetic marijuana is much more on law enforcement's radar," said Police ChiefJoseph L. Gaudett Jr.
"It's usually mixed in some bathtub in China. We need parents to stay aware. It looks like potpourri and smells like potpourri. We need synthetic marijuana to be on parents' radar screens, as well. Kids smoke it thinking it's safe, and simply -- it is not.
"If you see it, as a parent, you might want to wonder why your kid has potpourri in his bedroom."
Nobody was more surprised than Sam Pierpont, the owner of the center, that alleged drug distributors were operating out of the group of brick buildings on Connecticut Avenue. State Police said the ring was funneling millions of dollars of the drugs to the southern U.S.
"This was an embarrassment for us. In the two decades we have been running the center nothing has ever happened like this before," Pierpont said. The Innovation Center houses 140 small businesses.
While Pierpont said they try to screen their potential clients before allowing them to rent in the center, Young managed to fool him.
"He came across to us as a very professional person. He was polite, well-spoken, intelligent and we had no reason to suspect he was a major drug dealer. He told us he was starting a real estate business," Pierpont said.
The 43-year-old Young is awaiting trials on numerous federal and state drug and gun charges.
In late summer or early fall of 2013, a box Young had mailed from the Innovation Center was returned for having insufficient postage, Pierpont said.
Young was not around, so Pierpont said he and his assistant opened it. Inside the box were bags of a plant-like substance and a white powder.
"It looked like marijuana to me, but I'm no expert and we called the police," Pierpont said.
Kaempffer confirmed that detectives examined the material in the box and performed the standard drug tests on it, but they came back negative.
Pierpont said the box was later returned to Young who said the contents were f,or "male enhancement."
This past Oct. 29, state police gang and drug task forces raided both Young's office in the Innovation Center and his home on Sunshine Circle and seized more than 150 pounds of synthetic marijuana and a large amount of Bath Salts.
Much of the drugs were packed in boxes similar to the one Pierpont and police had opened the year before, but this time, police said, State Police Detective Richard Van Tine, who has had extensive training in identifying synthetic drugs, was on the scene.
State Police said Van Tine was able to identify the suspected drugs, using specific synthetic drug testing equipment