Synthetic-marijuana ring busted by feds in Fort Collins: The price of spice

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In a state like Colorado, where cannabis use and possession (of limited amounts) is now legal, you would think that synthetic marijuana wouldn't have much of a following. But you would be wrong.

Five Fort Collins men -- Dien Le, Ponlue Pim, Pirun Pim, Ricky Pim and Kenneth Barnes -- were formally charged earlier this week in U.S. District Court with possession, manufacturing and distributing fake weed (often called "spice," thanks to one of the major brands selling the stuff back when it was still legal).

The group was busted last Friday in a multi-location raid on seven different homes and businesses around Fort Collins; law-enforcement officials found 75 pounds of the fake weed, along with chemicals used to make synthetic pot that was later identified as JWH-018 [1-pentyl-3-(1-naphthoyl)indole] -- a Schedule I federally controlled substance.

Feds say that from last October through this past April, Barnes would order the chemicals from China and have them delivered to New York City. From there, the powder would be shipped to Colorado, where the five others charged in this case would mix it together with an unnamed, wet, "green leafy type substance" from San Antonio. Once the mix was dried out, they would package it and then personally distribute it to gas stations, head shops and other stores, where it priced at $20 for three grams -- roughly the same price as three mid-grade grams of actual cannabis.

The comparison of synthetic weed to actual marijuana brings up something else worth noting: With hundreds of marijuana stores operating in broad daylight right under U.S. Attorney John Walsh's nose, the feds appear to be focusing their money, resources and efforts in Colorado on fake marijuana, not real marijuana. Could that be an indication of how low Colorado medical cannabis dispensaries are on the priority list of the feds?

Not according to Jeff Dorschner, spokesman for Walsh's office, who offers this explanation for why busting spice manufacturers was a priority: "The main ingredient [in spice] is a powder manufactured in China. And those who manufacture spice have no idea what is in that substance. There is no guarantee that it is the byproduct that you need to produce the synthetic cannabinoid. It could be rat poison. It could be any number of things . This case no makes no statement regarding medical marijuana. Its focus is solely on the danger of this power of this being shipped."

The penalties for possession and distribution of a federal, Schedule 1 controlled substance in this case could be as high as twenty years in prison and $1 million in fines -- per count.

More from our Marijuana archive: "Suspensions and bans for athletes using pot should change, activist says" and "Marijuana: California Democratic Party asks Obama to back off Colorado."

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