BOCA RATON, Fla. -- With an alarming rise in the use of synthetic marijuana, DEA agents have quietly made a significant arrest of a Palm Beach County man, the first in Florida ever federally charged with distributing the banned psychoactive substances.
The arrest signals a new concerted effort by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration to combat synthetic marijuana which is marketed under various enticing names such as "K2," "Spice," "Mr. Nice Guy" and "Relaxinol" and freely available at gas stations, convenience stores and head shops across South Florida.
"I think it sends a message: We are going to aggressively prosecute people who are in violation of the controlled-substances act," said DEA spokesman Jeffrey Scott in Washington, D.C.
In January, a Jupiter police detective assigned to a DEA task force in West Palm Beach began an investigation into an alleged South Florida distributor of synthetic marijuana.
A confidential informant made recorded call to Joel Howard Lester, 52, who now is sitting in the Palm Beach County Jail. Public records indicate Lester has lived in the Boca Raton area for the past few years. The informant, posing as a store owner who wanted to retail synthetic marijuana, met with Lester Jan. 23 in West Palm Beach.
Lester told the informant he "was going to be very thankful because people were going to go crazy for the synthetic marijuana products," according to a criminal complaint.
The informant bought $300 worth of the substances — 50 one-gram packages of "Mr. Nice Guy," "Mary" and "Afterlife" that were fruit-scented.
The DEA sent the packages to one of the agency's testing laboratories, and the chemicals were found to be "analogues" of a compound on the banned list. Lester was arrested March 30 for possessing with the intent to distribute an analogue of a controlled substance, a charge that carries up to five years in prison.
Lester's attorney declined to comment, but court records indicate he is trying to negotiate a plea deal. Lester is a Canadian national who is in the United States illegally on an expired visa, and he has several aliases and passports, according to a magistrate's court order that Lester be held without bond.
Since 2009, when synthetic marijuana began appearing on the mass market, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of emergency room visits and reports to poison control centers involving the substances, which can mimic the "high" of marijuana.
The substances also can cause severe adverse reactions, such as aggression, increased heart rate, disorientation, seizures, panic attacks and even hallucinations.
Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi and legislators have moved swiftly the last two years to ban various chemical compounds that make up synthetic marijuana, in effort to give law enforcement the ability to arrest suppliers and retailers, but it is a cat-and-mouse game. Manufacturers can make a simple change to the chemical composition to keep the substances "legal."
The synthetic cannabinoids, typically procured from Asian suppliers, are sprayed onto dried plant material and sold in small packages, and the substances easily can be manufactured in a garage or storage unit. One such large-scale operation was discovered April 4 in Tampa.
In response to the health threats, the DEA early last year classified some of the chemical compounds found in synthetic marijuana as illegal controlled substances, and in February extended the ban for an additional six months while the agency works to get the substances permanently outlawed.
The controlled-substance classification also gave DEA agents the legal tool they needed to begin investigations and make arrests.
South Florida always has been a battlefront for the importation of cocaine and traditional marijuana, but local drug agents now are ramping up their investigations into manufacturers and suppliers of synthetic marijuana, here and across the country, Scott said.
"DEA wants to go after the largest actors, and make the biggest, most expansive cases we can," he said. "Distributor-level cases is where you are going to see the DEA make its mark. You may have a distributor in Florida shipping all over the U.S."
Scott said Lester's arrest was among a "handful" of similar cases in the country.
"It is one of the first across the nation," he said. "We are kind of at the tip of the spear of developing the complex investigations we really specialize in."