CANNABIS CULTURE – The biggest urine-test assistance company in North America was recently shut down and its owners arrested after a lengthy government investigation by a well-known anti-marijuana prosecutor.
Operation True Test, a two-year investigation by the United States Department of Justice into products that help people pass drug tests, culminated in federal raids on nine locations around the US on May 7, 2008. The raid targets included Puck Technology, an Internet company based in Signal Hill, CA that made products such as The Whizzinator, a prosthetic penis that delivers synthetic urine to tiny plastic testing cups.
The net result of the investigation and raids has been the shutting down of Puck Technology and plea agreements by Puck’s president Gerald Wills and vice-president Robert D. Catalano. No other arrests have been made. The prosecution was handled by US District Attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania, Mary Beth Buchanan, the same DA who prosecuted Operation Pipedreams and Tommy Chong five years ago (“Can’t We All Just Get A Bong”, CC #56), and in the same Western District of Pennsylvania where Operation Green Merchant – an attempt to shut down the indoor cannabis cultivation industry – was prosecuted 20 years ago (“Operation Green Merchant” and “Hydropanic”, CC #56).
Wills and Catalano were charged in a criminal information conspiracy based on federal paraphernalia laws, one element of which includes the definition that paraphernalia can include any “equipment, product or material primarily intended or designed for use in concealing a controlled substance.” It was the first time those laws have been brought against urine cleansing or substitute products. The products themselves are not outlawed federally – though there are at least 14 states, including Pennsylvania, in which any product intended to defraud a drug screening test are illegal.
Buchanan argued that The Whizzinator, as well as a Puck product called Number 1, were sold “to customers throughout the United States and in the Western District of Pennsylvania for the purpose of defeating federal, and federally regulated, employment drug urine tests overseen by SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) for marijuana, cocaine and other controlled substances under Title 21 of the United States Code.”
Prior to the indictments being handed down on October 14, 2008, Puck attorney Stanton D. Levinson had been on the record saying that it would be impossible for the government to make a case that urine cleaning products were drug paraphernalia because the “equipment, products or materials…designed for use in concealing a controlled substance” were intended to cover things that hid drugs, not drug metabolites. He later changed his mind and recommended that his clients take a plea rather than challenging the government in court.
“Initially, I thought the whole idea of these products being considered paraphernalia was silly,” Levinson told Cannabis Culture. “But we did some research and discovered that the government’s theory was lawful. The thing is this: the government would have brought up the idea of airline pilots and big rig truckers masking tests in court, and we’d have had a hard time convincing the jury that these things weren’t an attempt to defeat federal drug tests. Obviously, the tests are not showing whether someone is currently under the influence,” – because they detect cannabis long after use – “but trying to convince a jury of that would have been very, very difficult.”
Sentencing for Wills and Catalano is set for mid-February 2009, and both face up to eight years in prison and $500,000 fines. However, Levinson expects something considerably less harsh. “We were able to arrange a very favorable plea for the two defendants,” he said. “They’ve got an excellent possibility of avoiding jail time. And I think we also made a favorable deal on the forfeiture element in the plea. They won’t lose their personal assets.”
The other big name in last May’s raids involved Spectrum Laboratories, makers of Urine Luck and several other detoxifying products. Two locations were raided in Ohio and Kentucky. According to Jennifer Kinsely, Spectrum’s lawyer, the May 7, 2008 raids “called for a broad range of documents covering a number of products.” But, she added, “it’s hard to get a sense of who and what they’re going after because there has been no indictment yet. Spectrum was not shut down for a single day because of the raid,” and its products are still available on the Internet.
During the Spectrum raid, several copies of Tommy Chong’s movie a/k/a Tommy Chong, which Spectrum has a distribution interest in, were seized. Initial reports had Chong saying that 8,000 to 10,000 copies were seized, but Kinsley says she doesn’t think there were anywhere near that many being stored at the raided offices. “Whatever copies were taken were not master copies, they were just DVD’s like you’d buy at Blockbuster.”
Tommy Chong had a history of dealing with DA Buchanan during Operation Pipedreams, for which he wound up serving nine months in a federal prison. At the time of the raids he was reported as having thanked Buchanan for the free press regarding the movie, which deals with his Operation Pipedreams ordeal and in which he has no financial stake. He also went on the record saying that the Spectrum raids were an attempt to keep the movie from being distributed.
Spectrum’s attorney, Kinsley, agreed with him, telling CC that she thought Spectrum’s distribution deal “played a role in why Spectrum was raided.” Interestingly, in a press release regarding Operation True Test dated May 9, 2008, Buchanan went out of her way to distance herself and the operation from Chong. At the bottom of the release she was quoted as noting, “Contrary to Mr. Tommy Chong’s claims to the media, he is neither a target, nor a subject, of this investigation.”
The famous funnyman seems to have softened his stance recently. “I don’t know if Mary Beth [Buchanan] was targeting Spectrum Labs because they bought a/k/a Tommy Chong,” he told CC, “but I am sure it did nothing to distract them from their mission. Is the US government interested in me? No. I did my time. I am a felon and that is all they really wanted.” He added that he was surprised to hear that Willis and Catalano had pleaded out on their charges related to the Whizzinator. “I was sure they would take it to trial; however, who am I to talk about pleading out? Maybe they were holding a gun to their family. Once the government has a bead on you, you might as well give up and take the lighter sentence, because we all know what happens to those who ‘fight the government.’ You end up in jail or on some remote outpost in Cuba wishing you had copped a plea.” (Read articles written by Tommy Chong in CC backissues #66, #67, #68, #70 and #71.)
Whether there will be any further repercussions from Operation True Test remains to be seen, but it is unlikely as the new Administration is sworn in. US District Attorneys are appointed by the US President and traditionally resign when a new president is elected. With Barack Obama’s election in November 2008, most DA’s already submitted their resignations to give themselves ten weeks between the election and the actual power transfer to find new work.
But DA Mary Beth Buchanan has publicly announced that she will not resign. If she doesn’t, it’s likely she’ll be fired for her controversial cases, and the next DA from the Western District of Pennsylvania probably won’t pursue expensive prosecutions or cases that lead to little change in either law or the availability of what the operation was going after – Operation Pipedreams being a perfect example. [Operation Pipedreams] was just ridiculous,” said Levinson. “Buchanan prosecuted 55 bong cases and it cost the government $12 million to do it. And what did they get?
Tommy Chong for nine months, and a handful of stores shut down. That’s crazy. But then Pittsburgh, the Western District of Pennsylvania, has been the stomping ground for a number of cases the federal government wants prosecuted but doesn’t have anyone else willing to prosecute elsewhere.
Attorney Kinsley is fairly optimistic that when Buchanan leaves office, any investigation into Spectrum Labs will be dropped. “Right now, we’re at a standstill. They raided my clients months ago, charged no one, and made no attempt to restrict sales of any products. At the same time, it’s our understanding that the investigation is ongoing. But we’re hoping that if and when Ms. Buchanan leaves office that this case will be dropped.”
Though they would only speak off the record, people at two of the other places raided on May 7 have had no further contact with any federal agencies. A person answering the phone at ACS Herbal Tea Company confirmed that a raid had taken place, but said there had been no follow-up. At Herbal Remedies, a spokesman said that while the raid had been somewhat terrifying, nothing had occurred since.
“Nineteen people with guns drawn came in and told us they’re with the federal government, and we’re in trouble,” he said. “We sell vitamins and supplements, but they wouldn’t even let me go to the bathroom until they went in first and checked that there were no hidden guns in there.”
The spokesman said that at one time Herbal Remedies carried some urine test masking products, but that “because of the confusing state laws, we sold that part of the company off in 2007, a whole year before the raid. So it was a complete shock when they arrived. And I can’t imagine what it cost: there were agents from as far away as Ohio who came to our door in Wyoming. And for what? We don’t even have any of those products for sale.”
Among the remainder of the raided places, one recently went out of business on its own, and a second remains in business but carries no drug-testing products. The rest of the raids were carried out at the two Spectrum Lab locations, Puck Technology, and the homes of Wills and Catalano.
Puck Technology’s Number 1 and Whizzinator products were very successful and popular. Puck bought several pages of advertising in each issue of Cannabis Culture, High Times and Skunk magazines. CC Magazine publisher Marc Emery rued the loss of a steady advertiser for over eight years.
“It’s tough to lose a great client who bought ads in each issue; it’s tough on our readers, many of whom must deal with punitive and segregating urine tests in order to gain employment, and now have to deal with one of the best products being off the market. I hope that those who worked for Puck manufacture in Canada and let others handle the distribution, as there are no legal problems with drug-masking products here.”
Emery also noted the chilling effect that each US-led action has on the industry.
“After the Drug Enforcement Administration raided me in July 2005 (see www.NoExtradition.net and “Prince of Pot Busted by DEA”, CC #57), much of the seed business in Canada went into hibernation, and is only now coming back out. After Operation Pipedreams, a lot of glass blowers in the US closed up shop, and many moved to Canada. Only now, five years later, are they feeling comfortable in the US again. These raids and selective prosecutions seem to have the effect the DEA wants, but only in one place and only for a few years.”
According to a report by the US Office of Special Investigations to the General Accounting Office delivered on May 17, 2005, a year-long investigation into urine masking products discovered that there were more than 400 such products available on the web and in stores at that time. Of those, only a handful were targeted by Operation True Test – most specifically, the Whizzinator.
“To tell you the truth,” said Kinsley, “I don’t know if the government really meant to shut the industry down with this operation, or if it was simply meant to have a chilling effect on people in this business.” In either case, “What a waste of time and money.”
Read this article in Cannabis Culture Magazine #74
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