News 5 Investigates

Nov 10, 2013 5:00 PM by Eric Ross

News 5 Investigates: Loophole in synthetic marijuana laws

Nicholas Colbert, 19, had his whole life ahead of him.

"He was just an incredible young man," his mother, Stephane said. "He wanted to go into the Navy."

Those plans were cut short. Just a few months after graduating from Wasson High School, Colbert passed away. The coroner's report News 5 obtained says he died as a result of synthetic cannabinoid toxicity. His manner of death was ruled an accident.

"This didn't need to happen," Stephane said. "This should not have happened and it shouldn't happen to anyone else. Every day I live with the fact that he's not here."

Colbert has hired David Woodruff, a Denver attorney to represent her in a wrongful death lawsuit filed against a Colorado Springs convenience store who allegedly sold her son "Mr. Smiley," a form of synthetic marijuana just days before his death.

News 5 asked Woodruff, "How positive are you that the Kwik Stop (1125 S. Chelton) store sold these drugs (Mr. Smiley) to Nicholas?"

Woodruff replied, "We know from the witnesses who where with Nicholas the day, that he purchased it and smoked it with him that that's where it came from."

As the lawsuit moves forward, we identified a loophole in the law meant to stop the sale of synthetic marijuana. Colorado's "Spice" law bans nine common chemicals or "cannabinoids" used to make fake pot. The DEA says while it's a step in the right direction, manufacturers have found a way around the state law.

"The individuals know when we are getting close to controlling or regulating one of these synthetic cannabinoids, they will watch for it in the federal register," Roger Ely, a chemist with the Drug Enforcement Administration said. "From there, they will then find a new compound that is not on the radar and they will start marketing that in the same product."

We checked, and on a federal level, the sale of synthetic marijuana is illegal. However, the fake pot is being promoted and sold as incense or potpourri.

Suppliers try to limit their liability by posting a disclaimer saying the product is "not for human consumption."

"There's no question that what the sellers will try to do is claim that because they put ‘not for human consumption,' they can assume that nobody is going to consume it," Woodruff said. "Unfortunately (for the sellers), the evidence indicates that they knew that everyone they were selling it to was using it for the purpose of smoking."

Synthetic marijuana is believed to be behind a rapid spike in hospital visits.

Below are the statistics provided by the Colorado Department of Public Health from August 21 through September 19:

-273 hospital visits across the state
-73 hospital visits in Colorado Springs
-186 hospital visits in Denver Metro
-3 deaths currently being investigated that are possibly related to synthetic marijuana use

"The first action usually that the DEA takes is doing what's called an emergency control," Ely said. " When we find a substance that's being abused, we make a decision based on certain criteria and will make it an illegal substance for up to a year and a half."

This allows for more testing to be done on the chemical to determine its threat to the general public. Putting a temporary ban in place is only a band aid solution, and there's no guarantees the ban will become permanent. The DEA says that as soon as one chemical is banned, another one is created.

Until there's a clear solution to stopping the epidemic, Colbert and her attorney hope this lawsuit serves as a warning to those continuing to sell the drug.

"Until they are held responsible for bad outcomes for deaths or injuries, they (convenience stores) will continue to do this," Woodruff said. "So really it's one store at a time that we'll start to hold them responsible."

In the meantime, Colbert eagerly awaits the day when justice will be served.

"They (store owners caught selling synthetic marijuana) should rot behind bars," Colbert said.

Since Nicholas' death, Colbert's attorney says the Kwik Stop convenience store has stopped selling synthetic marijuana.

We'll be sure to keep you updated on Colbert's wrongful death lawsuit.

Just last month, the DEA seized thousands of doses of synthetic pot and bath salts at the "Spice of Life" on Academy Blvd.

Days after that raid, Springs police and DEA agents busted another store they say were selling synthetic marijuana.
Colorado Springs police along with federal agents are working a series of undercover operations to crack down on convenience stores selling fake pot.



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