Last July, a defense attorney blamed synthetic marijuana in a woman's death after his client allegedly smoked a “bad batch” of it, then stabbed, beat and choked his girlfriend to death. In September, two Houston men allegedly high on synthetic marijuana attacked and shot at their neighbors who were having a fundraiser barbecue to bring in money for the burial of a family member; the men reportedly got angry after they found a piece of cold chicken on the lawn. And in October, another man suspected of being high on the stuff drove up onto a sidewalk and ran over a woman, then kept driving and hit another driver stopped at a light.
Those are just three examples of what law enforcement officials described as violently bizarre effects of synthetic marijuana, often called “Kush." This week, the Harris County Attorney's Office and the Texas Attorney General's Office laid out a long list of these weird Kush-related crimes in a lawsuit against a Houston smoke shop that both offices claim is selling Kush illegally, often to teens. Yesterday, a judge also issued a temporary injunction against Jam's Smoke Shop to prevent it from selling the drug in the meantime — the second injunction of its kind the county attorney's office has obtained against a smoke shop in as many weeks. It's also the eighth time since last June that county and state officials have pursued area smoke shops or convenience stores (or even a sex-shop chain) with a lawsuit for enabling the spread of Kush.
“We're hoping to get the word out there not only to the store owners but also to the landlords that the city and the county and the state are taking a very hard-line, very focused approach to this,” said attorney Rosemarie Donnelly. “If you decide you're going to ignore the law and sell this product from your store, we are going to pursue you and, if necessary, we'll ask the court to shut down your store.”
According to the lawsuit, police busted Jam's Smoke Shop after multiple undercover Harris County sheriff's deputies and Drug Enforcement Agency feds went in and bought a few packages of synthetic marijuana, which is often “innocently labeled as potpourri and 'incense,'" the suit says. They ultimately brought a SWAT team in last Thursday — which broke down the store's door before seizing six kilos of Kush. In the suit against Jam's, the county and the Texas Attorney General's Office are seeking civil penalties against the owner for up to $20,000 per violation, or per sale. The owner did not return our request for comment.
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According to the DEA, Kush is the second most abused substance among high school seniors after marijuana. It's made with hallucinogenic chemicals intended to mimic the effects of THC in weed that, according to the suit, are dangerously addictive. Symptoms can range from psychotic episodes to severe anxiety and paranoia to suicidal thoughts and violent actions, the suit notes. Given the high risks it presents, particularly to young people, that's one reason the state and county governments are cracking down hard, Donnelly said.
“It's very pervasive among teenagers. Because it's being sold in the retail stores, that makes it more readily available,” she said. “We believe, and experts tell us, that the kids think it's legal. They think it's not harmful because of the way it's packaged. That's absolutely false, and it's quite the opposite: It's even more dangerous, in our view, than marijuana itself because of the chemicals. You don't know exactly what you're getting, and you don't know the potency of it.”
Stores that sell the drug have, in the past, argued that the products are “not intended for human consumption,” as the packaging reads, or that they really are just selling it as incense. As the lawsuit notes, “the manufacturer of these products and the Defendants rely upon these transparently false statements to provide them with 'cover' should their illegal distribution of these products be identified by law enforcement.”
And it's probably an even harder defense to prove when you're charging someone $35 for a packet of ingredients that, according to the lawsuit, should normally cost about 77 cents a pop.