Earlier this year, Joel Lester, a Canadian living in Boca Raton, saw a void that needed to be filled. Head shops and corner stores across the country had been raking in big bucks from bath salts and so-called herbal incenses, better-known as fake pot. Then the feds tossed down a blanket ban, launched a nationwide sting operation, and (at least temporarily) dammed the flow of these synthetic drugs. The profits dried up, and shop clerks began clamoring for the next moneymaking legal high.
Lester, who cleared a pretty penny in the synthetic-pot world, knew just the right substance.
"I didn't know who he was," says David, a cofounder of Lucky Kratom, recalling the first time he spoke with Lester. "He said he wanted to start selling kratom in Miami because he had customers who used to sell Spice [a brand of synthetic pot] and were looking for something else."
Lester's pitch impressed David, who asked not to have his last name published. Not only did Lester have ties to local smoke shops but he had proven sales experience in the counterculture market and a desire to expand the Lucky brand in South Florida, a market ripe for a kratom boom.
But Lester left out an important detail: He's a cooperating witness in one of the DEA's largest synthetic-drug cases.
The feds haven't outlawed kratom, but it's on the DEA's list of "Drugs and Chemicals of Concern." It's an herbal product -- often sold in powder or liquid form -- made from the leaves of a tree that grows in Southeast Asia. It has relaxing and euphoric effects. At high enough doses, it can mimic the effects of morphine. David's brand of kratom, Lucky, is well-known and has a loyal customer base that gushes about his products on Facebook.
As recently documented by New Times, many kratom advocates use the plant as an alternative to painkillers or other pharmaceutical products. On the other hand, plenty of people take it for the enjoyable buzz they get. Over the past year, news outlets have been churning out kratom scare stories, some of which portray the drug as a potentially fatal hallucinogenic despite the fact that there's never been a death linked to it.
Lester first landed on the DEA's radar on New Year's Day of this year. Police in West Virginia had raided a local head shop as part of a sweep aimed at synthetic pot. In one of the shops, officers found packets of Mr. Nice Guy herbal incense and an invoice indicating that Lester was wholesaling the cleverly branded and now illegal blend of acetone, synthetic cannabinoids, and plant matter.
A short while after the West Virginia raid, a guy posing as a store owner in the Boca area approached Lester and said he was interested in selling Mr. Nice Guy but didn't understand how the product worked or why people would want it. Lester, as documented by New Times, bragged about people hallucinating from Mr. Nice Guy's Relaxinol flavor and told the curious customer that people can get "really stoned" just from eating the stuff. After selling $300 worth of Mr. Nice Guy products that day, Lester was officially in the crosshairs of the DEA.
Two months later, the DEA raided Lester's Nature & Health storefront in Boca Raton and found thousands of packets of Mr. Nice Guy. He wasn't at the top of the supply chain but high enough to be a valuable asset to the feds.
Lester, a Canadian citizen, cooperated immediately in exchange for leniency from prosecutors. Within hours of his store getting raided, he was working the phones and arranging to buy an ungodly amount of Mr. Nice Guy synthetic pot straight from the source. Near the end of the day, with the DEA watching, Lester met a Mr. Nice Guy employee in a parking lot and acquired more than 15,000 packages of synthetic pot.
That particular buy, orchestrated and executed by Lester, cleared the way for the DEA's much-touted raid on one of the country's largest synthetic-pot manufacturers.
David knew none of this information when he agreed to let Lester rep the Lucky kratom brand throughout South Florida. Kratom advocates, including David, are increasingly worried that politicians, news outlets, and law enforcement are lumping kratom into the same category as synthetic drugs even though there's no chemical similarity and the effects are vastly different. But Lester seemed to be single-handedly forging a bridge between the two.
When David learned of Lester's history, he says he canned the Canadian and tried to cut off all ties. Yet Lester persisted.
"When I told [Lester] that I was choosing not to do business with him because he wasn't honest, he just kept calling," David says. "He kept calling my salesperson. And then he tried to go over our heads and purchase directly from my distributor about three weeks ago."
Is it problematic that Lester, a cooperating witness in an ongoing federal drug case who is working with the DEA as part of a plea deal, was simultaneously selling a substance that's on the agency's watch list and could soon be outlawed?
"There is no doubt that DEA and the government prosecutors are offended that their star witness is basically double dealing," says Marc Seitles, a defense attorney representing Mr. Nice Guy c-founder John Shealy. "They can't be happy."
But the DEA says it had no idea Lester was trying to sell kratom as recently as three weeks ago.
"I don't know anything about it," DEA spokeswoman Mia Ro says. "I know he has served his time... We typically don't confirm or deny anyone's cooperation with the agency."
Lester was terse when reached by New Times for comment. He confirmed that he briefly worked with David at Lucky kratom but hung up when asked about his cooperation with the DEA in the synthetic-pot case.
David is dumbfounded as to why Lester was so eager to sell Lucky kratom in South Florida. "He's at work on something," David says.
By Chris Sweeney Wed., Dec. 5 2012 at 8:23 AM