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Chemical designer drugs like Spice pose new puzzle for lawmakers

A federal sting in Fairbanks to combat an elusive designer drug has led to the seizure of more than $150,000 in cash plus silver bars, guns and more than $750,000 worth of the synthetic marijuana commonly called spice.

At a shop called The Scentz in the Interior Alaska city, special agents saw what appeared to be a spice-packaging operation, according to a civil lawsuit filed by the U.S. Attorney's office in Alaska.

Spice, often sold as "potpourri" or "incense" and also known as K2, has become a widespread problem in Alaska that has confounded state and local authorities because manufacturers have altered their chemical properties so that much of the spice sold today does not violate state or municipal law. The substance does, however, violate federal law, authorities say.

Health experts and police say synthetic marijuana may look like the real thing, but is actually a much more powerful intoxicant that can lead to bizarre, violent behavior, such as the recent puppy slaying in Houston, Alaska, and a sexual assault in broad daylight at a busy downtown park in Anchorage last summer.

In the civil complaint filed in federal court in late September, the U.S. Attorney’s Office is essentially challenging the owners of the seized items to come get their stuff and explain why they are not proceeds from the illegal drug trade. The burden of proof, however, is on the federal government.

No criminal charges have been brought following the undercover purchases and seizure. Representatives of the Interior shops that were raided -- two Mr. Rock & Roll locations, The Smoke Shop and The Scentz -- have indicated in preliminary paperwork they intend to get their belongings back. They have 55 days to formally reply to the civil complaint, once they've been served notice of its filing.

Officials with The Scentz and The Smoke Shop could not be reached for comment.

A manager with Mr. Rock & Roll who would not allow his name to be published said the business will formally respond to the civil complaint to get its items returned: "The primary point is these allegations are unfounded and that's why there have been no criminal charges brought. These things were seized unlawfully and need to be returned."

Legal spice?

The raid occurred on May 8, with multiple officers with the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Internal Revenue Service and the FBI's Criminal Investigative Division storming into the head shops, the manager said. At the Mr. Rock & Roll shops, agents brandished weapons and handcuffed employees for hours, he said.

Yet the synthetic marijuana sold at Mr. Rock & Roll is legal, with paperwork sent from spice labs in the Lower 48 verifying that none of the chemical compounds violate state or federal law, he said.

But the civil case argues that numerous packets of spice purchased by undercover agents, products labeled with names like "Diablo Mary Jane," "Hysteria" and "Demon Child," often violated federal law because the specific chemicals had been banned from the drug trade or because the spice violated the broader federal analog act that outlaws the sale of drugs mimicking controlled substances.

Though the packets were dubbed "not for human consumption," sales clerks at the head shops made it clear to undercover agents that spice is smoked to get high, the complaint alleges.

The complaint, in which the U.S. attorney’s office is suing the seized items and not any individual or business, comes as state and federal authorities seek new approaches to crippling the designer drug trade. Federal officials have recently said they have investigations and other efforts brewing in Alaska -- though they refused to provide details -- while the municipal prosecutor's office in Anchorage hopes to strengthen existing laws to stop spice in the state's biggest city.

Criminal charges could be brought in the future against distributors at the Fairbanks head shops. Jim Barkeley, assistant U.S. attorney, would not comment on that possibility.

Lawyers, guns and money

The case, essentially titled U.S.A. versus a lot of money, guns and 15 silver bars, is known as a civil forfeiture, following a confiscation of property based on evidence that it was obtained through illicit means. The seized spice isn't named as a defendant in the case.

Civil liberty advocates have opposed the tactic of civil forfeitures, arguing it wrongfully expands the government's prosecutorial power by reducing its burden of proof from "beyond a reasonable doubt" to a "preponderance of evidence."

The complaint notes that "multiple" undercover agents and confidential sources made "numerous undercover purchases of spice" from the stores between July 2012 and April 2013. Later, agents obtained search warrants.

At The Scentz, at least 80 percent of the inventory for sale was spice, documents said. Officers seized $38,288 in cash and 45 kilograms of spice.

Spice is often sold in 4-gram packets at stores in Anchorage for $30. By that measure, the potential value of The Scentz' seized spice is more than $330,000.

"In the back room" at that shop, "agents observed an open bin of 'spice,' which appeared to be in the process of being prepared for packaging," in part because there were stacks of pre-printed spice packets near the open bin, the complaint notes.

At The Smoke Shop, officers seized $22,019 in cash and 21 kilograms of spice -- worth about $150,000. A search of the home of The Smoke Shop's manager, whom the complaint did not name, yielded another 35 kilograms, worth about $250,000.

Employees estimated that the Smoke Shop sold up to $1,500 of spice daily, the complaint alleges. Employees there said they were instructed by shop owners on how to sell the drugs: By using the term "potpourri" instead of "spice" and to say "water pipes" when referring to bongs, the complaint states. Customers who uttered the word "spice" were ordered to leave the premises.

At two shops owned by Mr. Rock & Roll, officers seized 11 kilograms of spice, worth about $80,000 in potential sales. Spice made up more than 70 percent of the shops’ sales, the complaint alleges. Also seized was "fake urine for drug testing and stash cans typically used to hide drugs."

Officers also received a search warrant for the house of Richard Krawkowski, owner of Mr. Rock & Roll. They seized about $98,256 in cash and more than two dozen 100-troy-ounce silver bars, the court documents say. Also seized were seven firearms, including a 38-caliber revolver and a RAP-440 pistol from the Republic of South Africa, which were found loaded and in a safe containing the silver bars and about 100 grams of real marijuana.

According to the complaint, Krawkowski told the agents: "All our 'spice' is legal."

Contact Alex DeMarban at alex(at)alaskadispatch.com