The raid of a drug-paraphernalia wholesale warehouse in suburban Fairfield County that authorities say sold more than $2 million in illegal products began with a phone call from an upset wife.
She told the Fairfield County sheriff’s office that her husband was acting aggressively and had grabbed her by the arm before driving away from the house they shared on 5 acres in Violet Township. She didn’t want to press charges, she told the deputies who responded.
There was something else. Her husband’s company, she said, might be distributing illegal drugs. She led them to a pole barn on the property.
Sarah M. Surratt’s tip on July 9 led to authorities’ uncovering what they say is a wholesale company run by David G. “Greg” Surratt Jr. that sold illegal and unapproved plant intoxicants whose euphoric and hallucinogenic effects are similar to those of opiates and LSD.
Mr. Surratt, 37, ran Oncore Wholesale from a barn outside the couple’s home near Canal Winchester. Mrs. Surratt, 33, helped with the business.
The online wholesaler continues to sell a variety of pipes, digital scales, rolling papers, incense and other products to retail head shops locally and nationwide.
The Surratts and five employees were indicted in January on charges that say they engaged in a pattern of corrupt activity that included trademark counterfeiting, trafficking in drugs, trafficking in harmful intoxicants and possession or sale of unapproved drugs. Conviction on the corruption charge, a first-degree felony, is punishable by up to 11 years in prison.
Mr. and Mrs. Surratt have pleaded not guilty to all charges in the indictment. They also are divorcing.
Two days after Mrs. Surratt’s call, authorities returned to the house at 7700 Busey Rd. and seized computers, records and products from the Oncore Wholesale warehouse.
Two of the plant-based products sold by the company were sold illegally, investigators say: kratom and Hawaiian baby woodrose seeds.
Kratom is a southeast Asian plant whose effects — including euphoria, calm and a fuzzy warmth — are similar to opiates. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration does not regulate it as a controlled substance, but it has not been approved for consumption by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. That is why the Surratts are charged with possession or sale of unapproved drugs.
“He was selling it as a recreational drug,” said detective Scott Jones of the Fairfield-Hocking Major Crimes Unit.
Hawaiian baby woodrose seeds have hallucinogenic effects and are listed as a Schedule III controlled substance by the DEA because they contain LSA (lysergic acid amide), which is chemically similar to LSD. That is why the Surratts are charged with trafficking in drugs, Jones said.
They also are charged with trademark counterfeiting based on the company’s sales of “stash containers,” as they are called in the Oncore catalog. These are branded soda and beer cans such as Diet Coke and Coors Light, snack containers such as Pringles and Ritz, Barbasol shaving-cream cans and other household items that come apart to reveal a hiding space inside.
Mr. Surratt referred questions to his attorneys, Adam Karl and Keith Golden.
Kratom is not illegal, Golden said. “Our defense is, if it ain’t illegal, then our client hasn’t done anything illegal.”
As for the Hawaiian baby woodrose seeds, “We don’t believe the seeds are, in themselves, illegal,” because the LSA does not become an active ingredient until the plant is grown and harvested, Golden said.
“It’s not going to get you high or give you the effects you want,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with a seed that has LSA in it. It’s not in the chemical form that would give the effect a user would be seeking.”
Golden said kratom and Hawaiian baby woodrose seeds are herbal supplements, not drugs. Online, where they and other plants are widely sold, they are collectively advertised as legal intoxicants or legal highs.
“Isn’t there more-serious crime to be prosecuted — actual drugs — as opposed to a wholesaler?” Golden said. “This is truly not a drug dealer.”
The issue, said Ken Etchison, the resident agent in charge of the DEA’s Columbus office, is that the category of traditional illegal drugs continues to expand as chemically similar variations sprout up.
“They are trying to come up with something that is a chemical compound that is not classified as illegal; it’s tremendously profitable,” he said. “It is an emerging thing — to defeat the system."
Etchison said he did not know of federal prosecutions locally that specifically involved Hawaiian baby woodrose seeds or kratom. Cmdr. Eric Brown of the Fairfield-Hocking Major Crimes Unit called the plants a new side to the traditional drug trade. A spokesman for the Ohio State Board of Pharmacy, which helped in the Oncore Wholesale investigation, called kratom “an emerging drug of concern” in the state.
Among head shops on High Street from the Short North to the University District, none reported selling Hawaiian baby woodrose seeds. There appears to be some confusion about whether kratom can be sold.
The Joint, at 1186 N. High St., sells kratom, said a man behind the counter who declined to give his name. “It is legal to sell,” he said, adding that the store used to buy it from Oncore Wholesale.
Puff N Stuff, at 1652 N. High St., does not sell it, said a man behind the counter who also declined to give his name. “I stay away from that stuff. I just don’t want the hassle. I just stay with pipes. It’s a fine-line business. You have to be careful about what you have in the store."
Eddie Mustafa, who owns and manages High Up Water Pipes at 1434 N. High St., said he decided against carrying kratom.
“I heard it was a gray area” legally, he said. “We focus on glass pipes and accessories to smoke tobacco.”
Still, Mustafa said he frequently gets sales pitches from wholesalers who want to sell his store their kratom products.
“At least once a week, I receive a phone call from different vendors on the East and West coasts who say, ‘It’s legal, no worries.’ You can’t believe everything you hear.”
As the case moves forward, Mr. Surratt continues to operate Oncore Wholesale. He closed his Violet Township warehouse after being informed by township officials that zoning rules prohibit him from running any business in his residential area.
The business currently operates from a warehouse in Groveport.
Fairfield-Hocking Major Crime Unit investigators said Mr. Surratt can continue to operate his business as long as he sells only legal items. That is what he is doing, as far as they know.
Mary Beth Lane - The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio (MCT)
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