LARGO — The chemicals UR-144, AM2201 and XLR-11 come from China and run about $1,500 per kilogram.
Damiana leaves come from a wild shrub indigenous to Texas and Mexico and cost $60 a kilogram.
Mix those chemicals with acetone or alcohol, then spray them on damiana leaves, and you have highly profitable synthetic marijuana, a drug that can leave teenagers so aggressive they'll get into knock-down fights with police.
This is the nightmarish world described by Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri on Tuesday as he announced the results of Operation Spice King, a nationwide investigation in which the Florida Attorney General's Office and the Drug Enforcement Administration took part.
Ten people have been arrested, and hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of product and chemicals have been seized, Gualtieri said.
The three alleged ringleaders are Pyarali Shamsuddin Heerani, 48, of 6512 Marina Point Village, Tampa; Dadhichi Naik, 37, of 3377 Sherwood Drive, Largo; and Shamir Sultanali Nathani, 32, of 3053 Corona Drive, Holiday, who is married to Trudy Nathani, 44, a former Pinellas sheriff's detention deputy who also was charged.
Heerani fled after he posted bond and is now a fugitive.
After the ingredients were imported from China and the Southwest, the damiana was spread out in tubs and pools inside storage units and the ringleaders' residences in Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough counties, and the mixed-chemical spray was applied, the sheriff said.
From there, the synthetic marijuana was stuffed into 10-gram packages marketed to the young, with names such as Scooby Snax and Dead Man Walking. One of the packages featured a picture of one of the seven dwarfs and said the contents were next-generation herbal potpourri.
“The only resemblance between this junk and marijuana is that it's a leaf substance,” Gualtieri said. “If you're smoking this junk it takes you this way, and this way is a bad way and this is where people get aggressive and they start hallucinating and we have all kinds of problems.”
The suspects allegedly distributed the packages to at least four Tampa Bay area convenience stores and to eight states, including Nevada, Texas, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky and New Hampshire. The drug was sent nationwide in UPS packages.
They were typically sold for $20 a bag at convenience stores or gas stations owned, at least on paper, by Middle Easterners, Indians and Pakistanis, authorities said. Two of the three alleged ringleaders are of Indian or Pakistani descent.
“If we take what we know was distributed between 2011 and 2014, which was over 1,000 packages sent to various locations throughout the United States via UPS, and if we assume ... that each one of those contained about 5,000 10-gram packages, the retail yield would have been approximately $100 million,” Gualtieri said.
Yet, despite the operation's breadth and profitability, the suspects are not likely to serve much time because there is no tough punishment in Florida for trafficking in synthetic marijuana, as there is for cocaine and heroin trafficking.
The sheriff said, at most, the suspects aren't likely to serve more than five years in prison under sentencing guidelines.
“The reason they're not stopping is there is very little jeopardy, there is very little risk,” Gualtieri said. “'I sell the stuff, arrest me, bond out of jail, get probation and made a bunch of money in the process.'”
Indeed, when some of the suspects were first arrested they were charged with possession with intent to distribute, a third-degree felony. Since then, the statewide prosecutor's office, under Attorney General Pam Bondi, has stepped in and charged the three accused ringleaders with racketeering and conspiracy, more serious crimes.
Among the other seven suspects are Hasnain Brohi, 26, of Houston, who was charged with conspiracy to distribute synthetic cannabinoids; Farkunda Akhtar, 21, of Houston, who was charged with possession of synthetic cannabinoid with intent to sell; and Hurara Hassan, 33, of Houston, who was charged with possession of a controlled substance with intent to sell, manufacture or deliver.
Also arrested were Akber Ghazanfer, 33, of Houston, who was charged with possession of marijuana and possession of a controlled substance with intent to sell; and Sheraz Khowaja, 26, of Houston, who was charged with possession of a controlled substance with intent to sell.
Trudy Nathani, Nathani's wife, was charged with owning and operating a residence for manufacturing narcotics, and Joanel Volcin, 35, of St. Petersburg, was charged with possession of a controlled substance.