Announcing yet another lawsuit filed against a sketchy local business selling the dangerous synthetic drug "kush" under the counter, city, county and state officials gathered Thursday to renew calls to end the drug's epidemic.
On Tuesday, the City of Houston and the Texas Attorney General's Office busted Spice Boutique with a deceptive trade lawsuit, seeking an immediate temporary restraining order against the business to stop it from selling any more kush. Spice Boutique may also have to pay hundreds of thousands in damages, depending on what a potential jury may find appropriate as punishment.
In addition, two men in their forties who ran the operation, Minh Dang and Tuan Dang, have been arrested and charged with engaging in organized criminal activity. Police recovered 30 pounds of illegal narcotics and thousands of dollars in gold during the investigation, which began in June just after 16 people, many of them homeless, overdosed on kush in Hermann Park.
That's when Mayor Sylvester Turner said the bells went off that this was a large-scale problem. Officials say it's a misconception that the drug is sold discreetly on the streets, and that kush is actually easy to purchase at a suspected 58 locations in the county, the Houston Police Department Narcotics Division estimates. Undercover investigators are now scouting each of them, police said.
"For a long time, the focus was simply on the users. That’s what people saw, and those were the villains," Turner said. "We are focusing on those who are selling and distributing this stuff. That's why I want the emphasis to be on cutting off the supply."
While the city may have just begun cracking down in the past few months, the Harris County Attorney's Office has had this kush epidemic on its radar for the past couple of years. It has filed ten lawsuits against businesses caught selling kush during undercover police operations, securing temporary restraining orders against a total of 20 stores and so far completely shutting down four of them. In June, Jams Smokeshop, for example, was ordered to pay $878,000 in penalties after a jury deliberated for just 20 minutes, attorney Celena Vinson said.
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Officials in every office voiced concern that, because of the colorful, wacky packaging kush is sold in, with "flavors" such as "Galactic Head Trip" and "Klimax," it's often attractive to teenagers. Sometimes it's even deceptively labeled as "potpourri" or "incense," officials have said, yet according to the Drug Enforcement Administration, side effects can include seizures, psychotic episodes and hallucinations. Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson told a story about a 16-year-old girl, Emily Bauer, who tried the stuff and ending up suffering a series of severe strokes. Just last week, Anderson said, Bauer's parents posted a video of her on Facebook relearning to walk.
"I want parents to know that Emily Bauer did not buy her synthetic marijuana from a drug dealer on the streets. She bought it from one of these stores. These stores are nothing but drug dealers who are using storefronts to break the law."
Following the kush overdose in Hermann Park, Turner called a press conference to announce plans to combat the problem with more police presence at various parks in the city. On Thursday he said he had just handed over an additional $2 million in overtime pay to the Houston Police Department, whose officers have been cracking down on parks such as Guadalupe Plaza Park and the park near the Houston Public Library. The mayor added the epidemic had also put a huge strain on emergency personnel, who are handling overdoses every day.
In June, the Houston Fire Department said that it had responded to 3,000 total calls for overdoses since September 1. Nearly half of those calls — 1,396 — were for kush.