by Van Smith
Published in City Paper, Aug. 29, 2012
Just-released records in Maryland’s federal court show the Dragon’s Den Smoke Shop in Fells Point and the Tobacco Shop in Bel Air are part of an ongoing drug investigation into the distribution of synthetic marijuana, sometimes marketed as “Spice” and “K2,” which was banned last year. The role each shop played is spelled out in a warrant for the seizure of more than $2.2 million from M&C Wholesale, a company in Laguna Niguel, Calif., south of Los Angeles, suspected of supplying synthetic marijuana to head shops, including the Dragon’s Den and the Tobacco Shop.
The seizure occurred July 25, the same day a multi-agency federal crackdown on banned designer drugs descended on 91 communities in 31 states, according to a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) press release. Dubbed “Operation Log Jam,” the operation netted nearly 100 arrests and the seizure of more than $36 million and more than five million packets of synthetic weed and “bath salts,” designer stimulants that also were banned last year. Baltimore was not among Operation Log Jam’s long list of targeted communities, but Laguna Niguel was, perhaps due to the M&C Wholesale money seizure.
Last winter, the Dragon’s Den was implicated in an undercover DEA operation that resulted in an indictment against a Baltimore man, Carlo D’Addario, for allegedly supplying bath salts to distributors in Virginia (“Undercover in the Dragon’s Den,” May 30). The disclosure of the shop’s role in the fake-pot investigation came in court filings made public on the afternoon of Aug. 21, after City Paper went to press with an Aug. 22 article about the sentencing of Holly Renae Sprouse, D’Addario’s co-defendant in the Virginia bath salts case (“Bath Time,” Mobtown Beat, Aug. 22).
Sprouse, after prosecutors filed a motion recognizing her “substantial assistance” in prosecuting D’Addario, received a lenient, 20-month prison sentence on Aug. 14 for her role in the alleged conspiracy. The trial in the case, initially scheduled for May, has since been rescheduled twice. D’Addario is currently set to stand trial starting on Oct. 22.
The investigation leading to the M&C Wholesale seizure began last September, according to the warrant, when a DEA undercover officer entered the Tobacco Shop and purchased a gram of “Hysteria,” a fake-pot brand, for $20. In November, the same undercover officer returned to the shop and purchased another three grams of Hysteria for $47. The place was raided in December, turning up invoices for its wholesale purchases of the substances, branded not only as Hysteria, but also “Black Sabbath” and “Game Over.”
Using contact information from the invoices seized from the Tobacco Shop, agents arranged for a confidential source to order fake-pot products from the wholesaler in early April, and have it delivered to the Dragon’s Den in Fells Point. Two packages arrived there on April 4 and 5, containing packages of “Dr. Feelgood,” “Game Over XXX,” “Brain Freeze,” and “Black Sabbath,” along with documentation of the purchases from M&C Wholesale.
The operation then began surveillance of M&C Wholesale’s offices in Laguna Niguel, watching on June 11 and 12 as operators and employees managed incoming and outgoing deliveries. Later, in July, investigators were contacted by a courier-service employee that made and picked up deliveries there, and had seen its operations. The courier informed them that the only activity going on inside was “eight to 10 individuals seated around a table handling piles of a green herb-like substance.”
The investigation also probed M&C Wholesale’s financial transactions, learning that it gets paid for providing supplies to smoke shops with names such as “Puff N Snuff,” “Happy Daze,” “Up in Smoke,” and “Sky High Smoking Accessories.” Payments would enter an M&C bank account at Wells Fargo. Then, on July 24—the day before the seizure—$2.2 million was transferred from that account to another Wells Fargo account, held in the name of individual who is a signatory of M&C Wholesale’s account.
CP searched federal court records as well as those in Orange County, Calif., where Laguna Niguel is located, and found nothing to suggest M&C’s owners and operators have been charged with any crimes. Two phone numbers for them were included in the warrant. One of the numbers has been disconnected, and messages left at the other were not returned.
According to the Operation Log Jam press release, the probe is a partnership of seven federal law-enforcement agencies—DEA, IRS Criminal Investigations, FBI, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, U.S. Postal Inspection Service, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and U.S. Food and Drug Administration Office of Criminal Investigations—in tandem with “countless state and local law enforcement members.” DEA administrator Michele Leonhart is quoted, saying “this enforcement action has disrupted the entire illegal industry, from manufacturers to retailers,” and emphasizing that “we are committed to targeting these new and emerging drugs with every scientific, legislative, and investigative tool at our disposal.”