Texas Prosecutor, September-October 2018

Not-so-legal “legal weed”

We detest the term “legal weed” and cringe every time one of our new prosecutors utters it when talking about synthetic cannabinoids (“Syn- Canns” for short). SynCanns are not legal, and they are not “weed”; they are currently classified as Penalty Group 2-A (PG2A) controlled substances in the State of Texas.1 However, anyone who is going to prosecute any PG2A cases—including us—had better get used to the term “legal weed” because no one on a jury panel will know what a synthetic cannabinoid is, but they’ll all have heard about “legal weed.”
    Synthetic cannabinoids first hit the market in the early 2000s.2 They are marketed using flashy packaging with intricate artwork, and they are sold under names such as K2, Spice, Black Mamba, Brain Freeze, Joker, Cheap Trip, Mary Jane, F’d Up, Chilly Willy, and many others. The origin of these compounds is fairly interesting if you enjoy chemistry and pretty mind-numbing if you don’t. Basically, chemists around the world were trying to make substances that mimicked the effects of marijuana in the human brain. The goal was to synthesize a substance yielding a marijuana “high” that was legal to sell because it was not the legally prohibited substance tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). The potential financial gain was almost unlimited—and presumably legal—because the chemical compositions of the new substances were not specifically prohibited by statute.
    Aside from the questionable legal status, the main problem with these compounds is the adverse side effects on a user’s health. In Lubbock County, users have reported nausea, vomiting, seizures, paranoia, confusion—some have even died. A participant in one of our drug courts was at home running a bath, he smoked SynCanns while waiting for the tub to fill, and he passed out and drowned in the bathwater. SynCanns are especially devastating to our city’s homeless population. There’s a certain park that patrol officers call “Zombieland”; this park is in a part of town that houses a significant portion of Lubbock’s homeless people. Officers relate that whenever a homeless person can pull together $10, he or she often goes to a nearby smoke shop, purchases synthetics, and immediately smokes them. The person then walks around in the park in a daze until the drug’s effects wear off. There have been so many dazed people stumbling around the park that officers dubbed it Zombieland.

Cracking down on cannabinoids
In 2014, Lubbock experienced an increase in the problems with synthetic cannabinoids. Prior to 2014, synthetics were sold only in the seedier head shops in town. Then legitimate smoke shops began displaying and selling synthetics, adding to the ruse that these products were both legal and safe for consumption.
    On June 6 of that year, a letter co-written by the city attorney and criminal district attorney went out to 53 Lubbock smoke shops. The letter outlined that selling synthetics was a violation of both Texas and federal law, and it detailed the effects exhibited by those under the influence of synthetics and warned that continued sales and/or any injuries or deaths because of synthetics sales would prompt prosecution to the fullest extent of both criminal and civil laws. Letters were hand-delivered to suspected stores, including three locations of Tobacco Road, which were owned by Anthony Carter. A few days later, the district attorney and city attorney held a joint press conference warning local businesses about these banned substances and the consequences of their continued possession or sale.  
    Four days after delivery of the letter and one day after the press conference, investigators with the Lubbock County Criminal District Attorney’s Office made a controlled purchase of suspected synthetics at a