These chemicals were invented during the '80s and '90s in the labs of legitimate scientists at universities and pharmaceutical companies who had been looking for ways to harness the therapeutic capacity of THC without any of the stoned side effects. After their research hit the pages of scientific journals and seeped onto the Internet, rogue chemists with profit motives took it in a different direction.

Nowadays, industrial chemical plants in China and India produce enormous batches of synthetic cannabinoids. They're then sold through websites such as Alchemy Incense as "research chemicals" or fertilizer — with a disclaimer that they aren't meant for human consumption.

Transforming the ingredients into a finished herbal-incense product doesn't require a chemistry degree: Manufacturers mix the powdery cannabinoids with acetone, spray the resulting liquid on the plant matter, and wait a few minutes for everything to dry; then the incense is ready to be packaged, shipped, and sold.

Attorneys Spencer Siegel and Thomas Wright get ready to turn over $250,000 worth of herbal incense on behalf of a client.
Courtesy of Siegel Siegel & Wright Law Firm
Attorneys Spencer Siegel and Thomas Wright get ready to turn over $250,000 worth of herbal incense on behalf of a client.
Dylan Harrison, cofounder of Mr. Nice Guy, is scheduled to be arraigned September 24.
Dylan Harrison, cofounder of Mr. Nice Guy, is scheduled to be arraigned September 24.

It's a wildly lucrative venture. A kilo of cannabinoids typically costs $3,000 to $5,000, though lower prices can be had through bulk purchases and bargain hunting. One kilo can yield roughly an 8,000-gram batch of potent herbal incense. Each gram of the finished product has a retail value of about $10, so a $4,000 investment could generate $80,000 in gross revenue.

Shealy and Harrison scaled up the manufacturing process by renting warehouses to serve as factories and whipping up giant batches of herbal incense in cement mixers. They hired part-time employees to bag up the product. Eventually the pernicious acetone fumes were too much, and the workers began wearing ventilation masks. When a batch was done, some of the part-timers played test dummy and sampled the goods. After doing so, "they became catatonic... [and] could not respond to stimuli," according to court documents.

At full throttle, Shealy and Harrison churned out more than 100 kilograms of Mr. Nice Guy herbal incense a week, or 220 pounds of the stuff.

To move their product out of Palm Beach and across the country, they worked with a small network of distributors. These middlemen would buy thousands of packets of Mr. Nice Guy at a time and resell them to gas stations, head shops, and convenience stores.

Even though herbal incense wasn't illegal, Shealy and Harrison didn't want to flaunt the fact that they were importing massive amounts of gray-market chemicals from China. Shealy had kilos of cannabinoids shipped to his massage parlors; Harrison had them shipped to his mom's house, according to court documents. Shealy used fake names like Ben Wu and John Smith on leases and P.O. boxes. The paper trail ran through six levels of shell companies.

As business grew, the men took aggressive steps to protect their brand. They filed a federal trademark suit against a company they claimed infringed on the Mr. Nice Guy logo. Other tactics were blunter: At one counterculture trade show in Las Vegas, Harrison and Shealy got wind that someone was selling counterfeit Mr. Nice Guy. In response, they trashed the vendor's booth, a federal prosecutor said in court. On another occasion, they allegedly threatened a local distributor to hand over his customer list so they could cut out the middleman. When the distributor refused, they reportedly broke into his car and stole an iPad that contained the list.

Money poured in from their synthetic empire. Harrison purchased an $850,000 house with cash, according to court documents. He stashed $700,000 at a friend's house and $100,000 at his mom's place.

Meanwhile, Shealy dropped $140,000 on two classic cars and bragged about a storage container somewhere along I-95 stuffed with cash. Surveillance cameras were wired around his modest Palm Beach home, where he stockpiled a small arsenal that included a military-grade sniper rifle, an AK-47, a revolver, and three semiautomatic pistols. Shealy had developed a fondness for anabolic steroids and set up what federal prosecutors describe as a "steroid making lab" on his kitchen counter.

Demand for herbal-incense products soared in 2010 and 2011. People could walk into a gas station, spend 20 bucks, and get wrecked on "fake pot" without running afoul of the law for failing drug tests.

Packets of Mr. Nice Guy trickled across the country. It wasn't long before users came to learn that smoking a mix of acetone and Chinese chemicals might not be such a good idea.

A bong hit of herbal incense might result in a euphoric high that resembles the effects of marijuana. Or it might lead to an experience far worse.

Anecdotal evidence overwhelmingly suggests that smoking it can lead to weird and heinous decisions. One 23-year-old guy from Bradenton, Florida, smoked the brand K2, shot a gun in his apartment, and was then arrested while running around naked in the parking lot. Matt Evans, a 21-year-old from Dunmore, Pennsylvania, said he smoked Spice before shaking his girlfriend's 2-month-old son to death. He was sentenced to 40 years.

One of the most widely discussed cases of a synthetic high backfiring happened in Illinois after 19-year-old Max Dobner smoked a bag of iAroma, which he purchased at a cigar shop in a mall.

After a few minutes of stoned, heart-pounding anguish, Dobner called his brother and told him he "smoked that legal stuff" and was freaking out. The older brother advised him to take a shower, eat something, and lie down. Instead, Dobner got into his Chrysler Cirrus and drove 80 to 100 mph through crowded streets. He careened into the small retaining wall of a front-yard garden. His car jumped ten feet into the air and smacked a tree. The engine shot out as the twisted remains of the vehicle smashed through the house. Dobner was dead. There were no skid marks, no sign that he even tried to slow down before the carnage ensued.

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My Voice Nation Help

I'm all for legalization of marijuana, but I don't think there's anything wrong with herbal incense either. I've been smoking herbal incense from and I haven't had any problems. I think that this story is bogus.


Legalize marijuana so people don't have to smoke this crap.

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