Stories of businesses being raided for selling synthetic marijuana are cropping up more and more in Oklahoma these days, but law enforcement officials say the battle against the drug is far different from the one being waged against traditional street narcotics.
Oklahoma law changed years ago, when substances like “K2” hit the U.S. market, to try to stop convenience stores, head shops and other businesses from the selling the product, which authorities say is dangerous and potentially lethal.
Common names of the products, which are ever-changing and typically sold in packages containing just a couple of grams, include “Kush,” “Mad Hatter” and “Cloud 9.”
In Oklahoma, a handful of young people have been hospitalized after smoking synthetic marijuana, which is marketed as incense or potpourri.
In November, a 15-year-old boy in Mustang was hospitalized for days after telling his mother he'd smoked synthetic marijuana. The boy was on and off dialysis for several days.
At the time, the Mustang High School student was one of two patients at the Oklahoma City hospital being treated for kidney failure after admitting to smoking synthetic pot.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Oklahoma two patients had smoked a product by the name of “Flame 2.0.”
CDC documents show the two patients in the Oklahoma City area complained of vomiting, nausea and abdominal pain.
Last April, school officials in Tahlequah announced that two students were taken to a hospital after smoking synthetic marijuana.
About the time of the Mustang teen's hospitalization, Dr. David Myers, an OU Children's Physicians pediatric nephrologist, said not much is known about which chemicals in synthetic pot are causing people to experience adverse reactions such as kidney failure.
In February, a House committee approved a bill that adds 21 new chemical compounds to a growing list of illegal substances found in synthetic marijuana and so-called “bath salts,” which many users substitute for methamphetamine.
The bill was requested by the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, according to agency spokesman Mark Woodward.
Woodward said there are already more than 200 illegal chemical compounds on the list. He said law enforcement is “playing a game of cat chasing mouse” with the companies who create new synthetics, which are not on the list.
Because of this, Woodward said new drugs are added to the list each year.
The March 22 arrest of a Norman couple, who were operating a shop called Ancient Aromatherapy on the outskirts of the city's historic downtown area, seems to illustrate the cat-and-mouse game described by Woodward.
Dennis and Christie England, who once ran a custom cake shop and bakery from the same location, were arrested after Norman police learned the couple were selling the product along with other random items, including antique jewelry.
The couple is charged with possession of a controlled substance even though XLR-11, the chemical compound in the synthetic marijuana found at their shop, won't be on Oklahoma's controlled substance list until November.
XLR-11 is listed as the “synthetic cannabinoid identified from clinical specimens” of several patients who were hospitalized with kidney failure in 2012, according to the CDC.
Norman police Detective Jeff Puckett said the Englands were warned about selling the products that led to their arrests, but they continued to do so.
Court records show the couple may have been struggling financially and it's been widely publicized how much money can be made selling synthetic marijuana.
Puckett said police decided to act when they did because at least one student from a Norman High School had to be taken to the hospital reportedly after smoking synthetic marijuana.
“This is what I've learned in 21 years in law enforcement ... in this world, you either a turd or you're not,” Puckett said. “The turd, they don't care. It's like the guy who sells cocaine or marijuana or heroin ... they know it's illegal.
“They're going to hide behind, ‘Oh, this is legal, it's not banned.'”
But Puckett said just because XLR-11 isn't on the banned substance list — yet — doesn't mean the couple didn't commit a crime.
“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.”
In the meantime, Puckett said people will continue to try and get away with synthetic marijuana, which can fetch anywhere from $10 to $20 per gram.
A store owner in Bethany, who was arrested in July but never charged with any crime, told authorities he made $300,000 in just eight months selling the product.
Puckett said he worked a case in Woodward were the suspects made “close to a million dollars in just a few months.”
“There's a tremendous markup on this ... and that's the reason people do drugs to begin with,” the detective said.
“It's greed. It's a little bit of work for a ton of money. That's got to be a driving factor.”
CONTRIBUTING: Staff Writer Jaclyn Cosgrove, The Associated Press