When police pulled over a man in June for erratic driving in Rapid City, they found a handgun, drug paraphernalia, a scale and several baggies, according to police reports.
But while some of the material inside the bags field-tested positive for methamphetamine, two filled with a "white crystalline substance" tested negative, the reports say. The police also found a "large bottle of sea salt which appeared to be the same substance which was inside of the little baggies."
The officers seem to have "put two and two together" — the bottle of sea salt and a negative meth test — to book Chase McGuire into jail on June 14 for delivering or intending to deliver a fake drug, said Brendyn Medina, spokesman for the Rapid City Police Department.
"It’s a very common practice for dealers to dilute their illegal substance for something else" and "also a common practice" to sell 100-percent fake drugs, said Taylor Sperle, supervisor of the multi-agency Unified Narcotics Enforcement Team (UNET) and a sergeant with the Pennington County Sheriff's Office.
After McGuire was arrested, the Pennington County State's Attorney Office filed a formal charge against the 19-year-old man for delivering or intending to deliver a "non-drug as a drug" by representing meth as sea salt.
Those accused of making or selling fake drugs are charged under South Dakota Codified Law 22-42-16, a class 6 felony. If found guilty, McGuire could spend up to two years in prison and/or have to pay a $4,000 fine.
McGuire was also charged with possessing meth, committing a felony with a firearm and two DUI charges. One of the DUI charges is in the alternative, which means he could only be found guilty of one of the counts.
People "will put anything in there that appears to be the same consistency as the product that they’re trying to represent," said Cathy Bock, a lieutenant with the police department and former supervisor of UNET.
She said it's dangerous when real drugs are mixed with a non-drug because users don't know what ingredients they are ingesting or their potency.
"These aren’t pharmacists, these aren’t scientists," she said of people who make illegal drugs.
But Bock said it's hard for police to catch people selling fake drugs since buyers aren't going to call them to report a dealer who deceived them.
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"The only time we know is when we're involved in (an undercover) operation, and we get ripped off or we get sold bad stuff” or if a suspect tells police they have fake drugs, she said.
Sperle said it isn't uncommon to catch dealers with both fake and real drugs with search warrants.
Data from the Pennington County State's Attorney Office shows that it's rare to receive such charges from the police, or to at least believe there is enough evidence to prosecute them.
So far, McGuire is the only person to be charged with the crime this year in Pennington County, said Jill Hower, computer statistician for the state's attorney office.
There were no such cases in 2017 and two in 2016, Hower said. Details about the 2016 incidents can't be shared since one of the cases involved a juvenile and the other is sealed.
"It’s still a public safety issue because they’re still portraying it as a real drug, and so I would say it’s rare for someone who is doing that with the fake drugs to not also be involved with the real drug," Sperle said of why it's illegal to sell a legal substance marketed as a drug.
"They're basically just running an illegal scam," he said.
Dean Becker, a drug policy expert at Rice University, similarly framed the nature of this crime.
"It's fraud, it’s a deception, it’s a theft," Becker said. “It’s a way to corral people that are making money off the drug trade" even if they are fake drugs, he said.
He said similar laws to South Dakota's exist in other states, and some are also categorized as felonies. Becker said it would make more sense to charge this crime as a misdemeanor.
McGuire is out of jail on a personal recognizance bond and is scheduled to return to court for a status hearing on Dec. 3.