Although not a single individual was booked at the Flagler County jail in connection with the bust, a slew of state and regional law enforcement officials, including State Attorney R,J. Larizza, gathered at the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office for a mid-afternoon news conference Thursday to tout the results of a six-month investigation and today’s arrests of 11 individuals allegedly involved in the manufacturing, storage and sale of so-called synthetic marijuana. It was called “Operation Bad Dreamer.”
Synthetic pot is leafy tobacco or tobacco-like material sprayed with chemicals that may or may not be dangerous, depending on the chemicals’ make-up. Those chemicals are constantly changing in a cat-and-mouse game producers play with state and federal authorities’ attempt to categorize the more dangerous chemicals as controlled substances—and therefore illegal substances to possess or peddle. But authorities may not arrest individuals who possess or sell substances that are not on the controlled substance list.
Much attention has focused on the dangers of synthetic pot, which can—again, depending on its make-up—have disturbing consequences. But much of that attention has been the result of hype rather than evidence. Palm Coast last year passed an ordinance that imposes a $300-a-day fine on sellers of bath salts and synthetic pot, even though some of the products may be legal.
The Centers for Disease Control have documented outbreak-type cases in burts and particular locations of of synthetic marijuana use leading to hypertension, tremors, delusions and paranoia, among other symptoms, with some patients behaving violently. But the CDC has nowhere deemed the resulting use of synthetic marijuana an “epidemic,” as officials at the news conference today on several occasions inaccurately portrayed the matter.
The media have played a role in hyping the problem, also on inaccurate information.
National and state news sources including ABC, the Associated Press, Salon, the Miami Herald and innumerable smaller news sources have as recently as this week quoted Harry S. Sommers as saying that “The rise of synthetic drug use in the United States alone has reached epidemic proportions and has resulted in a sustained rise in emergency room visits, deaths, and violence among teens and young adults.” Those same sources have identified Sommers as a “special agent in charge of the Atlanta field division of the CDC,” who spoke those words in July.
They are all wrong: the CDC has no “special agents.” Sommers exists, he spoke those words in July, and he is a special agent in charge in Atlanta—but for the Drug Enforcement Agency, not for the CDC. He has never had any connection with the CDC, except for working in the same town. His words, however, and the inaccurate association with the CDC, have helped propel the synthetic marijuana hysteria and give the semblance of authority to law enforcement officials claiming—as they did today at the sheriff’s office—that they are dealing with an “epidemic.”
It is advisable therefore to keep the following information in its proper context: while synthetic marijuana use has been known to cause severe health reactions, there is no epidemic use of synthetic marijuana nationally or locally. There is no such documented “epidemic” reported by local health officials. Even Sheriff Jim Manfre on Thursday conceded that there are no documented cases of widespread use that has led violent episodes requiring police responses. He said the synthetic marijuana is being made and distributed, and that preventive measures are necessary.
On Thursday, some 80 cops fanned out bin St. Johns and Flagler counties to arrest the individuals and seize allegedly illegal product.
Only one of the individuals was arrested in Bunnell, along County Road 304. The rest were arrested in St. Augustine, with two exception: one was in Jacksonville, another lives in Alabama. Five were charged under the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO, which usually applies to criminal organizations. Authorities have at times applied RICO to smaller-time drug dealers because if it sticks—a very big if: it’s not easy to win conviction under RICO—the punishment can be up to 60 years in prison, according to Larizza.
The alleged ring-leader of the organization is Mark Hayley Dickinson, 50, of 1255 Ponce Island Drive in St. Augustine, who caught the attention of police when he was allegedly illegally bringing tobacco from Georgia to Florida and selling it while evading the tax on the product. That triggered further investigations that then led to the wider issue of synthetic pot.
Aside from the property on County Road 304, a house was raided in Palm Coast, at 37 Pine Grove Drive, and neighbors witnessed cops this morning taking possessions out of that house, but no arrests were made there. A sheriff’s spokesman said the operation at that house was tied to the largest operation.
There were no images provided of the houses—or the barn in Bunnell—where the products were seized, or where the synthetic pot was allegedly manufactured.
Officials said they seized 160,000 packets intended for distribution, that over 1,400 were ready for sale, and that the total take was some 320 pounds of “raw product” and over 50 pounds of final product which was ready for packaging” into 10-gram bags. Had the whole amount been sold, it would have had a street value of $402,000, according to the officials.
But none of the product seized today was tested to determine whether it was, in fact, illegal, FDLE
Jacksonville Regional Operations Center Special Agent in Charge Dennis Bustle said. By conducting previous under-cover buys with the suspects, Bustle said, authorities determined that the stuff the suspects were handling was illegal by testing those packets. It’s not clear how those under-cover buys were conducted, since the aim of the suspects was not to sell the alleged synthetic marijuana the way, say, regular marijuana is sold—on the street—but to package it in glossy little packages and sell it through retail stores.
Officials at the news conference were not eager to hear more than routine questions, though Manfre after the news conference was more expansive with explanations about the operation in Flagler proper.
“Most of this was being distributed in St. Johns, if at all,” Manfre said, referring to the synthetic pot. “It was being processed here.” The Flagler County Sheriff’s SWAT team served a warrant on Carlos Dasilva, 42, of 1246 County Road 304, where DaSilva is accused on two counts of “leasing and maintaining a location for the manufacturing of a controlled substance.” Two counts, because the property entailed a house and a barn. DaSilva was booked into the St. Johns County Jail around noon.
In a news release, Manfre said: ““The synthetic compounds are marketed to our youth and young adults. They become the target of drug dealers who intentionally market these compounds through slick and gimmicky packaging. Those young people who unwittingly experiment with these types of products often find themselves ending up in hospital emergency rooms across the country. It is essential that we do everything possible to keep people from using these illegal substances and that we continue to actively pursue anyone responsible for manufacturing or selling these dangerous synthetic compounds.”
The names of the arrested individuals are below, as provided by the sheriff’s office.
Charges: R.I.C.O., Conspiracy to Commit R.I.C.O., Sale of a Controlled Substance (6 Counts), and Sale of Felony Drug Paraphernalia (4 Counts).
Charges: R.I.C.O., Conspiracy to Commit R.I.C.O., Sale of Controlled Substance (2 Counts).
Charges: R.I.C.O., Conspiracy to Commit R.I.C.O., Felony Delivery of Drug Paraphernalia and Sale of Controlled Substance (3 Counts).
Charges: Possession of Controlled Substance with Intent to Distribute Controlled Substance.
Business: 2350-A Ponce Dc Leon Blvd. St. Augustine.
Charges: Sale of Controlled Substance.