It's a new chapter in the War on Drugs.
Police, courts and the state forensic laboratory say they are dealing with more cases involving synthetic cannabinoids and other designer drugs since the Connecticut Department of Consumer Protection passed regulations banning fake marijuana, bath salts and salvia last year.
The case of Souhail S. Elkhoury, owner of Corey's Petroleum convenience stores in Groton and East Lyme, is one of the first synthetic marijuana cases on the New London Superior Court's major crime docket.
Paul J. Narducci, a senior state's attorney who has handled countless drug cases over the years, said he would be meeting with Drug Enforcement Administration and state Department of Consumer Protection officials soon to bring himself "up to speed" on the new regulations and the relatively new products.
In the Elkhoury case, Groton Town Police and the Naval Criminal Investigative Service said they seized 102 packets of synthetic marijuana from the Corey's food mart at 208 Route 12 in January after an undercover patrolman made three controlled buys of products called "Scooby Snax," "OMG" and "WTF."
Elkhoury, 57, of Greenville, R.I., who is also known as "Khoury" and "Cory," was charged with three counts each of possession of a controlled substance, accessory to sale of a controlled substance and possession of a controlled substance with intent to sell. He was charged also with money laundering, avoiding tax on the sale of cigarettes and conspiracy to sell a controlled substance.
Convenience stores and smoke shops started selling packets of green, leafy herbal products as a legal substitute for marijuana about 10 years ago, claiming they could produce the effects of marijuana without the presence of its active ingredient, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).
"The idea was, you didn't have to have marijuana to get a marijuana high," according to Robert H. Powers, director of controlled substances and toxicology at the Connecticut Forensic Laboratory.
But researchers discovered in 2008 that the chemical compounds added to the dried leaves of legal herbs were related to marijuana. Powers said the synthetic cannabinoid products likely are manufactured within the United States.
The DEA has classified several of the cannabinoids, with names such as JWH-018, JWH-073, JWH-081, as controlled substances, saying the long-term physical and psychological effects of these substances are unknown but potentially severe.
Connecticut last year joined 38 other states that had banned the products.
Authorities warn that use of the products can result in psychotic behavior, especially among those with psychotic disorders.
Unlike marijuana, which has both stimulant and depressive effects, the synthetic cannabinoids don't have the depressive, or calming effects, so users can get an uncontrolled stimulant effect, according to Powers.
Manufacturers of synthetic marijuana have continued to tinker with the products in an effort to make them legal.
"If one specific structure is made illegal, if I can change the structure a little bit, I'm now selling my product legally," Powers said. "Because our drug laws evolved out of pharmaceutical patent law, we consider a very small change to the molecule to be a completely different molecule. There are attempts being made to address that at the state level."
Defense attorney Carmine J. Giuliano, who is representing Elkhoury and other convenience store owners charged with selling synthetic marijuana, said he would be consulting with toxicologists as the cases move forward. He said he has just started to review the chemist reports that the state's attorney's office provided with Elkhoury's case file and it's not clear whether the products are illegal.
"It seems kind of weird, if all these places are selling the stuff," he said. "It's sort of like baseball players who are one step ahead of the Major League with steroids. Figure out how to change the formula and they pass the law."
Undercover operation in Groton
During the Elkhoury investigation, an undercover patrolman went to the Groton store three times with a concealed listening device and purchased packets of synthetic marijuana with recorded bills, according to an arrest warrant affidavit in the case.
During the first visit, the officer purchased a glass smoking pipe, or "bowl," before asking the clerk if he had any "Scooby Snax." After he assured the convenience store clerk that he was a member of the U.S. Navy, not a police officer, the store clerk reached below the counter to retrieve a packet of "OMG" synthetic marijuana, handed it to the officer, and quietly told him to put it in his pocket, according to the affidavit.
Sailors from the nearby Submarine Base had been banned in 2011 from Cory's and several other area stores that sold the designer drugs after the Navy instituted a zero tolerance policy for synthetic marijuana and other designer drugs.
The undercover police officer returned to the store two weeks later and purchased rolling papers and a packet of "OMG," according to the affidavit. The clerk rung up the sale on an older model calculator-style register that doesn't record purchases.
By the third visit, the clerk recognized the undercover officer "as a person interested in the purchase of synthetic cannabinoid products," according to the affidavit, and asked him whether he wanted big or small packets of the product.
The same clerk, Majula Ranasinghe, was on duty during the raid and told the police that employees kept the synthetic marijuana under the counter and rang it up as nontaxable, according to the affidavit. Ranasinghe said Elkhoury delivered the products to the store and, when Ranasinghe questioned him about their legality, the owner told him not to worry because they were not illegal. Ranasinghe said he sold 20 to 25 bags of synthetic marijuana per shift.
In addition to synthetic marijuana, police seized $24,522 in cash from the store's cash registers and drop safe, 13 packs of cigarettes with counterfeit Connecticut tax stamps and two cartons of cigars with no tax stamps.
In conjunction with the Cory's investigation in Groton, East Lyme police and state police searched the Cory's Food Mart at 265 Flanders Road and spoke to the operators.
In March, the police in East Lyme raided another local convenience store, Sergey's Smoke Shop at 170 Flanders Road, following a two-month investigation. They said they seized 686 packets of synthetic marijuana, which they said had a street value of $10,290, and $1,254.62 in cash.
Resident State Trooper Sgt. Bill Blanchette said officers are preparing an arrest warrant in that case and that police will be watching for any other activity involving the substances.
"I'm hoping East Lyme is now a synthetic marijuana-free place," Blanchette said.
More charges filed
There have been a handful of arrests in the region related to synthetic marijuana.
New London police raided the Sams Food/Ravi Petro convenience store at 290 Broad St. in February and said they seized about 500 packages of "K2," another brand of synthetic marijuana.
They charged store clerk Sunny Singh, 26, of 150 Broad St., Apt. 2, with operating a drug factory, possession of a dangerous weapon, possession of a controlled substance, possession of a controlled substance with intent to sell and possession of controlled substance within 1,500 feet of a school.
In addition to seizing the drugs, police said they confiscated more than $34,000 in cash, about 1,000 items of drug paraphernalia, narcotics packaging materials, cutting agents, scales and concealment devices.
Police said they also seized illegally copied DVD movies and illegal weapons, including brass knuckles and switch blade knives.
Singh, who posted a $25,000 bond, is due in New London Superior Court June 27.
State police said in February that they seized a large amount of K2 from the Best Way gas station in Jewett City. The store owners, Sam Rita, 52, and Santosh Mahey, 46, both of Colchester, each were charged with illegal possession of narcotics, tampering with evidence and conspiracy to commit a crime. Their cases are pending in Superior Court in Norwich.
In March, state police arrested Vipin S. Patel, 55, of 112 Brown Ave., Jewett City, in Brooklyn and located 21 pounds of synthetic marijuana in his minivan with a street value of $16,000. His case is pending in the Windham Judicial District.