On the morning of May 7, 2014, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) launched Project Synergy Phase II, a national "day of raids" in 29 states, with the goal of taking down purveyors of synthetic drugs who funnel their proceeds to Middle Eastern terrorist organizations.
The Purple Zone, a smoke shop in Alpine, Texas, owned by 29-year-old Ilana Lipsen, was the target of one of these raids. This particular raid was so heavy handed and its aftermath so clumsily handled by law enforcement that it drew national attention as a symbol of police militarization and the vagaries of laws pertaining to drug "analogues." Analogues are chemicals that are not prohibited but are similar enough to controlled substances that they become illegal depending on who interprets the data.
Even worse, The Purple Zone and its owner may have been targeted because of the personal vendetta of a single prosecutor.
A Safe Little Town, Filled With Cops
Alpine, Texas has a population of a little more than 5,000 residents. It is quite literally in the middle of nowhere, more than 200 miles from El Paso, home to the nearest major airport, and 75 miles from Mexico. Because of the town's proximity to the border, it is classified as a High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA), which along with the relative isolation, makes it an attractive home to a great many in law enforcement, including members of federal agencies such the DEA and the Border Patrol. Sul Ross State University, the town's signature institution, hosts a law enforcement academy.
Alpine evokes the Texas libertarian ethos of a quiet, safe town where you can expect to be left alone. It's what draws both bohemian artists as well as culturally conservative folks. How one feels about Ilana Lipsen and The Purple Zone represents the schism between the two camps.
"You either love me or you hate me," says Lipsen. "I've received anti-Semitic hate emails. I've been told to 'go back to Jew York.' I've had people come in my store and tell me it was 'fucked up" and that I was poisoning the youth of the town—even though I have a big sign that says '18 and Over' and I have an ID scanner. The bars here in Alpine don't have ID scanners, but I do!"
Originally from Houston, Lipsen arrived in Alpine in 2003, when she enrolled at Sul Ross University to pursue her interest in Arabian horses by studying equine science. Though she would leave school before graduating, she still loved the wide-open spaces of Alpine and decided to make it her home, purchasing a ranch for her horses and going into business for herself.
After antique furniture and pet supplies failed to keep her balance sheet in the black, she wracked her brain thinking about what was missing from the marketplace of this West Texas railroad town. The answer she came up with was sex toys and smoking accessories. And it worked. She called her store The Purple Zone, which thrives to this day thanks to a loyal, mostly college-aged consumer base interested in hookahs, vaporizing, and e-cigarattes.
Raids and Chemical Analogues
In March 2012, "10-12 men came in, SWAT team style" to the Purple Zone, Lipsen recalls. They told her she was not under arrest, but cuffed her and threw her in the back of a police van while they searched her store, seized personal property including computers, a cell phone, and hard drives. They also took numerous packets of what Lipsen sells as potpourri in the incense section of the store, adorned with the colorful brand names such as "Dr. Feelgood," "Scooby Snax" and "Bomb! Marley."
Brewster County District Attorney Rod Ponton insists these items are "spice," or synthetic cannabanoids. But Lipsen notes, "You can buy these products online or in any gas station or smoke shop in Texas." She says that she throws out anyone who insinuates these products are used for anything other than making your house smell good.
Eight months after the 2012 raid, police returned to arrest Lipsen and her mother, Rosa (who is not an owner or an employee of the store, but frequently visits to help clean the store and tend to her daughter's many pets) on felony charges of "possession and distribution of a controlled substance."
Though the the Alpine PD and the DEA would make many undercover purchases at the Purple Zone over the next two years, lab tests turned up no controlled substances except for "MAN-2201," "XLR-11," and "UR-144," all of which were legal in Texas at the time of the raid. In fact, they would only become illegal in January 2013 when the federal government's Synthetic Drug Abuse Prevention Act, signed by President Obama in July 2012, went into effect.
The DEA insists the Controlled Substance Analogue Enforcement Act of 1986 affords them the power to prosecute possession of these substances because they are "similar to controlled substances." It is this enforcement of "analogues" that landed Lipsen with a felony indictment for products she believed to be legal.
That wasn't just her opinion. Lipsen spends thousands of dollars having all the products she sells lab-tested for controlled substances and has the documentation to prove it. Prosecutor Ponton also knows how expensive drug testing can be. In March 2014, he went before the Brewster County Board of Commissioners, pleading for thousands of dollars of funds for additional testing on the seized potpourri packets but was refused out of hand.
Out of resources but intent on proving Ilana Lipsen's criminality, he would find a willing partner in the DEA, an agency without his office's budget limitations.