Residents of Western Australia’s capital city Perth have grown accustomed to the Cloud 9 smoke shops dotting the metropolitan area. Some passersby may even remember when Cloud 9 came to national media attention after a series of shop raids in 2015 and 2016 turned up large quantities of synthetic cannabinoid products. Now, after a lengthy two-year trial, the owner of the Cloud 9 chain of smoke shops in Australia, Hoang Nam Nguyen, has been sentenced to two years in jail for selling illegal drugs. Nguyen’s sentencing marks the first time someone in Western Australia will serve time for selling banned substances.
Before police slapped cuffs on Nguyen back in 2015, his Cloud 9 smoke shops had been the target of some serious controversy. The shops have a reputation for selling synthetic cannabinoid products— known in the U.S. as “K2” or “Spice”—more or less openly. Because as law enforcement and prosecutors have found, synthetic cannabinoid products are often cocktails of otherwise legal chemicals. In fact, calling them “synthetic cannabinoids” is somewhat of a misnomer. These products don’t contain THC, just dangerous chemical mixtures designed to simulate the same psychoactive effects. And that makes it very difficult to prosecute their sale as the sale of illegal drugs.
So much so, actually, that Perth lawmakers passed a bill specifically to ban synthetic “cannabinoid” substances. Rather than requiring law enforcement or prosecutors to identify a specific banned substance, 2015’s Misuse of Drugs Amendment simply prohibits all psychoactive substances. In short, it’s what the substance does, not what it is, that matters under the law now.
Immediately after the law passed, police sent letters to retailers warning them against continuing to sell psychoactive substances. And just as quickly, police showed up at Cloud 9 shops with search warrants in hand. In one shop, police found thousands of different-sized packets of synthetic cannabis. The shops were reportedly selling the packets for $60 to $120. In the U.S., packets of K2 sell for as little as $3 to $5.
Subsequent raids at nearly a half-dozen other locations turned up even more synthetic cannabinoid products. At one store, police say they found nearly five kilos of synthetic cannabis material in a secret room hidden behind a false wall. Prosecutors say this store was likely the distribution hub for the other locations. Police also seized nearly $150,000 in cash they say is illegal proceeds from selling drugs.
But it’s what investigators found in the synthetic cannabis packets that’s most alarming. Lab tests of the substances turned up chemicals linked to synthetic cannabinoid overdoses in Japan, Louisiana and Brooklyn, New York. MAB-CHMINACA hospitalized 120 people in Louisiana in 2014. 5F-AMB turned up in the bodies of ten drug overdose victims in Japan in late 2014. And FUB-AMB was the substance behind the “zombies” that took over a Brooklyn street corner earlier this summer.
Yet even during the raids, Cloud 9 shops continued stocking shelves with and selling products like Dark Phantom, Wild Joker and Illuminate Pineapple Extreme. Prosecutors said that Nguyen had even sent several batches of synthetic cannabinoid products for testing on his own. When 10 of the 13 samples failed, he told staff to destroy them. But then Nguyen bought very similar products to replace them. Police say more than 700 grams of the material they seized tested positive for psychoactive substances.
As a result, Cloud 9 smoke shop owner Hoang Nam Nguyen received a two year jail sentence. He’ll serve a year of it before he becomes eligible for parole.
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