Bizarro: The Surreal Saga of America’s Secret War on Synthetic Drugs and the Florida Kingpins It Captured, by Jordan S. Rubin, University of California Press, 278 pages, $27.95
For the average American, the phrase “Florida drug kingpin” is more likely to evoke cocaine-slinging Cubans or meth-cooking bikers than a middle-aged science-fiction nerd who invited the police to inspect his facilities. Yet in the eyes of federal prosecutors, Charles Burton Ritchie was no less a kingpin—just smarter and less violent than the folks they were used to dealing with.
The story of Ritchie’s rise and fall, as told by Jordan S. Rubin in Bizarro: The Surreal Saga of America’s Secret War on Synthetic Drugs and the Florida Kingpins It Captured, is every bit as compelling as a more Scarfacian tale. Rubin, a former narcotics prosecutor in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, has written a period-defining study of federal drug prosecutions at the beginning of the synthetics boom.
Our Dantes are Ritchie and his business partner Ben Galecki, who met as teenagers in the early 1990s while attending the same Narcotics Anonymous meeting in Pensacola, Florida, both under court order. Ritchie was a few years older and went on to found the Psychedelic Shack, a beach-adjacent shop that sold bongs, rolling papers, and alternative clothing. Galecki would later work at the Shack as a piercer.
Initially, the Shack made most of its money from cannabis paraphernalia. In keeping with head-shop practice, Ritchie forbade his employees from acknowledging what things like bongs were designed for and would not sell to customers who mentioned illegal drugs. Eventually, he got hip to a trendy head-shop product called spice, conveniently marketed by wholesalers as potpourri or incense, packaged by the gram, and featuring a label warning that it was “not for human consumption.” Once on the Shack’s shelves, it quickly became popular among the customers who bought “tobacco water pipes.”
Spice, as many Americans now know, is not potpourri or incense. It’s also not just “a” drug but an ever-changing number of synthetic cannabinoids sprayed onto generic plant matter to mimic the effect of cannabis.
The very first spice formulation to hit the American gray market was created by Clemson University chemist John W. Huffman in the 1980s using a federal grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Huffman would later say that actual cannabis was far safer than smoking the compounds Chinese chemists created based on his published research, which he likened to “playing Russian Roulette.”
But Ritchie didn’t tell his customers to smoke it. He told them it was incense and potpourri. “I’m a libertarian,” he said during cross-examination at a 2017 criminal trial. “What people do with a legal product is their business.”
This brings us to the recurring theme in Rubin’s investigation: Ritchie’s belief that he had sold a legal product. How does one ascertain that one’s business is square with the law? You could consult the law—in this case, the Controlled Substances Act, which is periodically amended to include new compounds that the government wants to prohibit. You could contact an attorney. You could consult the local sheriff’s department and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). You could have a lab test your product for banned compounds. Ritchie did all those things when he founded a spice manufacturing company called Zencense, and everyone—including the law—told him that the compounds he was buying from China, cutting with acetone, and spraying onto plant matter did not contain controlled substances.
But complying with the 1986 Federal Analogue Act is not quite that simple. The statute gives federal law enforcement license to go after people who deal in substances “substantially similar” in structure, effect, or advertised effect to prohibited ones.
In 1992, the first major case in which the law was applied went down in flames after two DEA chemists disagreed over whether an orphaned antidepressant compound called AET, which the defendants marketed as MDMA, was, in fact, substantially similar to any drug that was actually illegal. When the DEA analysts reached different conclusions in their respective testimonies, Judge Lewis Babcock, a Reagan appointee, concluded that the Analogue Act failed to inform citizens of what was actually illegal. If the DEA’s chemists couldn’t agree with each other about substantial similarity, what hope would a normal person have?
What does the phrase even mean? Alexander Shulgin, a Dow chemist turned psychedelic pioneer who reintroduced MDMA to the world after decades of inattention, succinctly summed up the problem with the Analogue Act in a 1987 lecture cited by Rubin: Is a Pontiac taillight “substantially similar” to a Chevy taillight? “In some ways yes and some ways no,” Shulgin answered himself.
Rubin’s history of the Justice Department’s lobbying efforts over the Analogue Act suggests the agency was less concerned with epistemology than whether the concept would hold up in court. Eventually it would. All it took for the government to start winning was some messaging discipline within the DEA and enough trials to build a reservoir of favorable precedents.
As in 1992, that discipline was initially hard to come by when the DEA sought to prosecute spice manufacturers in the 2000s. Central to Rubin’s book is a forensic chemist at the DEA who believed that Ritchie and Galecki, the latter a 20 percent owner of Zencense until the pair sold the company in 2012, were not manufacturing or selling a drug that was “substantially similar” to compounds that had been banned by a 2011 amendment to the Controlled Substances Act. The DEA fought fiercely to keep that chemist from testifying and found a friendly federal judge to agree in the first major trial against Ritchie and Galecki. During the second of what would be three trials, the DEA chemist was allowed to testify, but he had, by that point, resigned from the agency under a cloud related both to his work habits and to his unwise response to a Craigslist personal ad seemingly posted by a juvenile. In other words, he’d lost his punch as a witness.
Rubin’s play-by-play of the legal battle that followed Ritchie and Galecki’s indictment is meticulously annotated and chilling. One federal prosecutor said in open court that the government keeps a secret list of prohibited analogs that it will not share with the public because that would let the “bad guys” stay one step ahead of the law. A federal judge refused to let Ritchie tell a jury what steps he took to comply with federal drug laws.
Ritchie and Galecki are not perfectly sympathetic. They called their products potpourri and incense but gave them names like Bizarro and Orgazmo. They knew people were smoking and inhaling a chemical bouquet they mixed themselves in what can charitably be called rustic conditions.
But the feds come across here as more dangerous, mercurial, and unethical than their targets. Instead of presenting jurors with evidence of a crime and then proving the defendants committed that crime, the Analogue Act both allows and requires prosecutors to present legally vague behavior and then have jurors determine, based largely on competing testimonies on molecular chemistry, whether any crime was committed at all. In short, what Zencense did was not illegal until jurors said so, which they definitively did in September 2020.
The pair’s ordeal is also vivid proof that bad laws have unintended consequences. It was the prohibition of cannabis, after all, that led to Huffman’s research and the spice market. In a saner world, Ritchie and Galecki could’ve sold legal cannabis at the Psychedelic Shack. In this one, they saw a loophole the government created and took their shot. The government, unwilling to concede that it didn’t have a pot to piss in, closed that loophole around their necks.
Ritchie, now 53, and Galecki, 49, are scheduled for release from federal prison in 2032. The Analogue Act is still the law of the land, even if nobody quite understands what that means.