What looked from the outside like an unsuspecting Manalapan warehouse was on the inside the staging area for an illegal narcotics operation that converted pieces of candy into illegal products called edibles by infusing them with THC, a chemical found in marijuana, authorities announced Tuesday.
The Monmouth County Prosecutor’s Office charged 24 people in connection to the drug ring, which used legitimate, store-bought candies, such as Sour Patch Kids and Nerd Ropes, to create edibles wrapped in vibrant packaging that officials say could have attracted teenagers and children.
Authorities seized about 21,000 pieces of candy, 1,100 pounds of marijuana and over 6,000 flavored vape cartridges containing THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, all with an estimated street value of nearly $2 million, Prosecutor Christopher Gramiccioni said of the year-long investigation. He said investigators made arrests in six New Jersey counties and the ring operated on both coasts of the United States.
The counterfeit candy looks nearly identical to candy bought at convenience stores and contains an unknown amount of THC, Gramiccioni said while holding up a bag of Sour Patch Kids.
“Colorful and sugary candy like what we seized are among the best selling edible pot products on the black market. Counterfeit candy is making the rounds and they constitute an extreme danger to our community, particularly the children,” Gramiccioni said during a press conference for what officials dubbed “Operation On The Ropes.”
The alleged ring leader for the East Coast, 27-year-old Dylon Addvensky of Freehold, is charged with leading a narcotics trafficking network and multiple drug distribution and conspiracy charges. Authorities say he employed several others to help him create and distribute the products.
Two other Monmouth County men — Eric Karlewicz, 40, of Colts Neck, and Nicco Romanowski, 27, of Freehold— allegedly acted as suppliers, Gramiccioni said. All of the 23 people arrested were released pending trial. One suspect from Los Angeles, California who arranged shipments of THC products from the West Coast to the Garden State, is still at large. (The full list of suspects can be found by clicking here.)
The suspects used some of their proceeds to buy high-end, exotic vehicles like Ferraris and Lamborghinis, authorities said. More than $10 million in assets were seized, including 21 luxury cars totaling $2.7 million, authorities said.
Inside the Park Avenue warehouse in Manalapan, groups of one to five people would pour bags of candy into tin trays placed on parchment paper and spray the sweets with THC, said Paul Alexander, a Monmouth County assistant prosecutor who worked on the case. Another processing facility was run out of a hangar at the Monmouth Executive Airport in Wall Township.
The suspects were operating out of the two facilities for at least a few months last year, Alexander said. They were arrested on Dec. 19, 2019.
“The trays were overflowing with (candy) ... It would just be open, out on tables,” Alexander said of the operation.
Among the edibles seized were 1,200 THC-infused Sour Patch Watermelon candy packages labeled “Stoner Patch” edibles and more than 3,100 THC-infused “Nerd Ropes” packages in bright pink, yellow and blue wrappers.
Also seized were more than 6,500 THC vape cartridges in a variety of 16 flavors.
The cartridges had flavors that could appeal to children, like banana strawberry and ice cream cake, said John McCabe, chief of detectives for the Monmouth County Prosecutor’s Office.
According to the federal Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), most of the 2,500 patients hospitalized for vape-related illnesses reported using e-cigarettes containing THC.
“It is all of our jobs to make sure our kids will not be fooled by the smokescreen of vapes infused with THC that could have a harmful effect on the development of the minds,” McCabe said.
Multiple law enforcement agencies from the region helped with the investigation, including the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office, New Jersey State Police and two dozen local police departments.