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3 are first to be charged in state in sale of synthetic pot

Three local men have been charged in what federal drug investigators are calling the first-ever arrest in New York State related to the sale of synthetic marijuana.

The men -- one from Buffalo, two from Lackawanna -- are accused of selling synthetic marijuana at several local delis, including the Speedy Market at 1799 Genesee St.

Charged in the case are Mohammed Albanna, 34, of Buffalo, and Adel Abdullah, 28, and Mohammed Alawi, 45, both of Lackawanna.

Investigators said the presence of this relatively new drug at stores in Buffalo suggests that its availability is rapidly growing.

"This is a dangerous substance," said Dale Kasprzyk, head of the Drug Enforcement Administration in Buffalo. "We are aggressively trying to attack this problem."

Federal prosecutors said the case is believed to be the first New York State prosecution related to the distribution of synthetic marijuana, which only recently was banned by state health officials.

"You need to know these substances are being sold as close as the corner deli," U.S. Attorney William J. Hochul Jr. said Thursday.

Hochul urged the public to keep an eye out for man-made pot and to alert the police if they see it at a local store.

"If you see something, say something," he said.

Investigators stressed the possible health risks associated with synthetic marijuana and, to drive home the point, invited a local expert to appear with them at Thursday's news conference.

"People are misled into believing this is a benign substance and may be safer than traditional marijuana," said Dr. Robert McCormack, chief of emergency medicine at Kaleida Health. "The exact opposite is true."

The arrests were the result of an investigation by the DEA, Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority police and the Lackawanna and Buffalo police departments.

Kasprzyk singled out NFTA police for their role in discovering a shipment of synthetic marijuana arriving in Buffalo from a private company in New Mexico. Search warrants were executed at the company's operations Thursday.

"This investigation started with the seizure of a suspicious package," Kasprzyk said of the NFTA. "This case began because of their good work."

Investigators said they traced the package to the Speedy Market on Genesee and eventually went under cover and made several buys at the East Side store.

On display at Thursday's downtown news conference were a wide range of synthetic marijuana products, many of them with colorful child-oriented packaging and names like "Mr. Happy," "Scoopy Snax" and "Black Yum Yum.

The government's latest attempt at cracking down on synthetic marijuana differs greatly from its last effort.

In February, dozens of federal agents armed with rifles and other weapons raided smoke shops on a local Indian reservation.

There were no arrests, but agents confiscated an unspecified amount of synthetic marijuana and other related merchandise.

The raids resulted in Tonawanda Seneca Indian leaders complaining that their sovereignty was violated. Native American merchants also accused the government of overreacting by coming in with a large number of heavily armed agents.

From Day One, the Drug Enforcement Administration has argued that man-made pot is linked to overdoses and hospitalizations, many of them involving young people.

The synthetic version of marijuana provides a marijuana-like high, police say, but it also causes unpredictable health problems.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer has pushed for federal legislation that would ban the substance. He also claims that the number of medical emergencies caused by the consumption of synthetic marijuana has increased dramatically.

He often points to figures from poison control centers across the country that conclude there were only 13 recorded medical emergencies resulting from the drug in 2009. He claims that number skyrocketed to 1,000 cases a year later and 6,500 last year.

The laboratory-produced drug is often made in China and is much more potent than grown marijuana.