NORMAN — In March, police raided Dennis and Christie England's shop on the fringes of historic downtown Norman and effectively shut the business down, accusing the pair of selling dangerous synthetic marijuana to the public.
The couple was arrested and charged with possession of a controlled dangerous substance within 2,000 feet of a park. Before they opened Ancient Aromatherapy in January, the Englands had operated Sugar, a bakery that specialized in high-end wedding cakes, for several years out of the same location.
Norman police had watched the couple's business for weeks before they raided it, even warning the Englands to stop selling the synthetic marijuana, which was being sold under such names as “Cloud 9,” “Mad Hatter” and “Kush.”
During an interview with The Oklahoman in April, Norman police Detective Jeff Puckett seemed confident the Englands would pay the price for selling a product that he said is known to cause serious problems to users when abused.
Puckett seemed confident even though XLR-11 — the chemical compound present in the hundreds of grams of synthetic marijuana seized at the Englands' shop in March — wasn't even on Oklahoma's ban substance list.
“The way our statutes are written, we have a couple of different ways to go after them,” Puckett said. “We have a synthetic drug statute and we have a statute for controlled (substances). So, every time we have a new substance, it will end up on our controlled list.”
Yet after a June 24 preliminary hearing before a judge in Cleveland County District Court, the case against the couple — who has since lost everything — was dismissed.
A March 1 report submitted by the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation, which tested roughly seven grams of products described as “Zero Gravity Potpourri Juicy Fruit” and “Zero Gravity Potpourri Watermelon,” seemed to hint at trouble for the prosecution.
“Instrumental analysis indicates the presence of an isomer of XLR-11,” Kevin Kramer, criminalistics administrator for OSBI, wrote in the report. “However, this could not be confirmed.”
The Englands' lawyer said this storyline isn't an uncommon one in Oklahoma.
“They're nearly impossible to prosecute,” the couple's attorney Jack Dempsey Pointer said about synthetic marijuana cases.
“It's a matter of them actually confirming it's a banned substance that is giving investigators a hard time.”
The case against the Englands is a prime example of this apparently growing problem.
No illegal compound
Kim Chi Nguyen and her son were arrested in October, charged with intent to distribute synthetic marijuana and other drug complaints.
The mother and son ran a convenience store in Lexington called Kim's Place. After a raid, police recovered an undisclosed amount of synthetic marijuana, roughly $3,000 in cash and a ledger.
The affidavit filed in the case against the Nguyens contained some chilling details, bits of information included to no doubt sway a judge during a preliminary hearing, when it is decided whether to send a case to trial.
“I asked (Kim Nguyen) if she sold any synthetic marijuana after I had spoken with her (the day before the Oct. 16 raid), where I advised her that it was illegal to sell and she said that she did,” a Lexington police officer wrote in an affidavit.
“I then advised her that that person was in a hospital in Oklahoma City on a ventilator to help him breathe.”
Yet when an analysis of the seized incense products was returned, it did not detect an illegal compound.
The case against the Nguyens was dismissed in February, court records show, “due to negative results on lab report.”
A year ago, a shop owner in Bethany was arrested after police raided his business and confiscated thousands of dollars in packaged synthetic pot.
Reports at the time indicated that police began watching the store run by Shaik Kalymuzzman after two teenagers overdosed on products bought at his shop.
Kalymuzzman, who was arrested but was never charged with any crime related to the raid at his shop, told investigators he made roughly $300,000 selling the synthetic drugs in eight months.
Waiting for the lab
In other parts of the state, some prosecutors are waiting until OSBI lab technicians catch up with the manufacturers of synthetic marijuana before attempting to move forward with their cases.
Brian Kuester, district attorney for Adair, Cherokee, Sequoyah and Wagoner counties, said authorities have raided at least five convenience stores in his area in the past year or so in an attempt to address the synthetic marijuana problem in eastern Oklahoma.
Kuester said all the raids have had a positive effect, claiming that synthetic marijuana “isn't as big a problem as it was a year ago.”
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What is synthetic marijuana?
Sold under many names, it is dried herbs sprayed with lab-synthesized chemicals that are supposed to mimic the effects of THC, the active ingredient in cannabis.