It might have seemed like the ideal "under your nose" criminal enterprise, but an alleged scheme to use a chain of Minnesota smoke shops as a front to sell synthetic marijuana has led to federal charges against five men.
The U.S. Attorney's Office in Minneapolis says the defendants operated the drug ring beginning in 2011, selling their illicit products out of the "Smokes 4 Less" shops, according to a news release. One location is in Mankato.
One of the men charged, 33-year-old Omar Ziad Wazwaz, is the owner of the stores. Officials say the scheme earned him millions of dollars.
According to the charges, the businessman and his four co-conspirators sprayed synthetic cannabinoids – some of it imported from China and Liechtenstein – on a "leafy plant material," which would give their customers an experience similar to that found using marijuana.
They proceeded to sell their products in Wazwaz's stores under a wide variety of colorful names, including "Tiger's Blood," "Man of Steel,' and "Juicy Fruit."
Each of the defendants has been charged with conspiracy to distribute controlled substances.
One of the men, 25-year-old Vladimir Vladimirovic, is apparently no stranger to headlines, reports the Grand Forks Herald.
The paper says he generated "publicity" in Duluth in 2011 when he was accused of carving a 10-inch "X" on a man's chest and threatened to burn him in an act of "vigilante" revenge. He was later sentenced to five years on probation.
The charges come amid a statewide crackdown on synthetic drugs. Last August, Minnesota lawmakers passed legislation toughening the state's laws on such substances, which have been described as highly dangerous, according to Governor Dayton's office.