Jeremy Rogalski, KHOU
HOUSTON - The scene at Hermann Park Thursday was overwhelming.
"We have people continuously smoking KUSH as we stand here and more passing out as we stand here,” said a Houston Fire Department medic to dispatchers.
But just as first responders scrambled to keep up at so-called “KUSH corner,” so have police in the overall fight to crack down.
"The challenge is it's an up and coming trend, it's a difficult drug to deal with,” said HPD Narcotics Sgt. Marsha Todd.
Sgt. Todd said it’s difficult because up until last September, the wording of Texas criminal law had put law enforcement one step behind.
"It named certain chemicals that were illegal, and didn't name so many that we were finding, and for us, it was sort of a cat-and-mouse game,” said. Sgt. Todd.
“Cat-and Mouse” because manufacturers would simply change chemical recipes to make their product legal. But even with the new stronger law on the books, records show criminal enforcement still has been slow.
The I-Team analyzed Harris County court records from June 2014 to June 2016. During those two years, 18,118 marijuana charges have been filed, while only 153 synthetic cannabinoid charges have been filed during the same time.
Of the 107 convictions so far on the synthetic drug charges, nearly all of the guilty, 92 percent, have gotten off with less than 30 days jail time.
But there's another tool in the KUSH crackdown that has nothing to do with jail time.
The office of Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan has sued ten businesses over the past year, including Jams Smoke near F.M 1960 and Ella Blvd. In that case, a jury ruled the business pay $878 ,000 for selling synthetic cannabinoids.
Celena Vinson is an Assistant County Attorney.
Vinson: “We’re going after the dealers.”
I-Team: “You're getting rid of the weed at its root.”
Vinson: “That's what we're trying to do.”
The enforcement action is not criminal in nature, but civil under the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act.
Selling synthetic cannabinoids packaged like the cartoon character Sponge Bob or “Scooby Snax” that look like kids treats, are deceiving.
“Basically saying that they are misrepresenting and selling a product that is harmful to the public,” Vinson said.
Resulting in scenes like the multiple overdoses at “KUSH Corner” in Hermann Park.
Authorities said the mark-up for selling synthetic cannabinoids is huge. They said it may cost $1 per package to make, and often sells for $35 to upwards of $50 per pack.