Two years ago this month, a 16-year-old girl, dizzy, disoriented and vomiting, wound up in the emergency room of Monongahela Valley Hospital when she inhaled from a cigarette a substance called Black Magic Smoke.
Police traced the Black Magic Smoke to Cigarette City on Jefferson Avenue in Washington, and Friday, they arrested the owners of the business – and charged the business itself – for dealing in synthetic marijuana, also known as potpourri, spice or K2, the name of Earth’s second-highest mountain. Two-gram packages of plant material sprayed with chemicals sell for $30, carry names like “Comatose Candy” and are marked “not for human consumption.”
Brand names aside, Dr. Neil Capretto, medical director of Gateway Rehabilitation, said “for 10-, 11- and 12-year-olds, this is their substance of choice.” Although it is called synthetic marijuana, he said the hallucinogens it contains are much more powerful than marijuana.
“The effects on the developing brain of a young person are mind-boggling,” Capretto said, saying the substances could contain between 140 and 200 chemicals. “You don’t know what you’re getting,” he continued. “It really is Russian roulette.”
And while synthetic marijuana may not be the same as a bullet, its effect could be just as lethal. Or, the result could be a youngster suffering from drug-induced schizophrenia.
Of the packages labeled potpourri, Capretto said, “It’s really a scam,” and asked how plausible it would be to find 18-year-old boys buying air fresheners for their bedrooms. He asked parents to be on the lookout for the substances.
Washington County District Attorney Gene Vittone cited reports that show one in every eight high school seniors has tried these drugs at some time before they graduate, and called the term “synthetic” a misnomer because it may imply the little packages are not harmful.
“Diligent police work enabled officers to trace products sold in Washington County to their origin in mainland China,” Vittone said. “The investigation further led to the identification of many individuals in different states involved in the manufacture and sale of the drugs in Washington County.”
Cigarette City was one of four businesses Vittone identified at a news conference in South Strabane Township. The other smoke shops are in Peters Township and McDonald.
Owners of Cigarette City are Snehal Patel, 38, his wife, Pratishka, 33, and his mother, Kailash, 65, all of 128 Hardwood Drive, Venetia. Their family business was identified as Snehal and Kailash Inc. Snehal Patel is being represented by former Washington County district attorney Steve Toprani.
Individuals and businesses also charged were:
• David DiBello, 59, of 1221 Lucia Drive, Canonsburg, a co-owner of Tobacco 4 Less LLC, 3202 Washington Road, McMurray, which was served with a sealed search warrant July 25, 2012, when 112 packages of synthetic marijuana with the brand names Cloud Nine, Caution, AK 47, Barely Legal Express, Devil’s Wrath and Barely Legal High Octane were seized along with pipes, metal grinders used for processing and a digital scale.
• Andrew Schade of 108 Lee Street, Carnegie, who operated Schade’s Snack, News and Lotto in McDonald. At his arraignment Friday afternoon, Schade said he no longer owns the business.
“I open businesses and I build them up and I sell them for a profit. I sold that,” Schade told District Judge Robert Redlinger.
The businesses were charged under the Racketeer-Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. They remain open, but they are no longer selling synthetic marijuana, as far as the district attorney’s office can determine.
Vittone said, “Individuals who are named in the arrest warrants are part of a ring that distributed the illegal drug through convenience stores throughout the county over the past several years.”
Also charged were Randy Berger, 43, of 150 Millview Drive, Pittsburgh, who was named as a supplier of illegal drugs; and Richard Schran Jr., 42, of 830 Walnut St., Donora, who law enforcement authorities claim was warehousing products for a co-conspirator who was not charged Friday.
Preliminary hearings for the defendants, who were released on their own recognizance, have been scheduled for Friday, Aug. 9, before Redlinger.
Another defendant, Dharmesh Jain, formerly of Washington, who was described as being in his mid-40s, sold his business, Dharmesh Inc., known as Mega Express in Washington, and is believed to have been in India since September, according to David Abbate, assistant special agent in charge of Homeland Security Department investigations in Pittsburgh, who also attended Vittone’s news conference.
Along with Mega Express at Ridge and Murtland Avenue, Cricket stores in Washington and Canonsburg are under new ownership. A year ago, police were searching the stores and were seen removing items.
Conducting the undercover investigation were the Washington County District Attorney’s Drug Task Force, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, state police Bureau of Criminal Investigation, the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and many municipal police departments.
Vittone also thanked the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and federal Drug Enforcement Agency for banning the synthetic substances.