There are few things in this world that feel sketchier than meeting up with a person you’ve never met before in a random gas station parking lot. One of those things happens to be meeting up with a person you’ve never met before in a random gas station parking lot in a part of West Virginia you’ve never been to with the intention of buying some mind-altering substances, which was how I met Mike. I realize that this all sounds like the start to some Cormac McCarthy novel where I get handed a briefcase filled with $30,000 and a severed hand in it and am eventually killed in a firefight outside of a bed-bug infested motel, but there were a few mitigating circumstances that allayed some of my concerns. While I hadn’t met Mike before, he was a friend of the same friend who hooked me up with a different contact in West Virginian the day before and, since she hadn’t taken me down into a basement dungeon with the explicit purpose of making a skin suit out of me, I figured I could trust her judgement on Mike. Plus, it turned out that the only reason we were meeting at the in the parking lot of a gas station was because it was right off the freeway and because the town of Beckley, WV apparently doesn’t believe in coffee shops.
By the time I got to the gas station, Mike was already parked in his silver late 90s model Chevy SUV, perpendicular to the freeway off ramp and at least 30 feet away from any other car. I pulled up in the spot next to his and got out when I saw him motioning with his arms for me to jump into his car, hopping into the passenger seat and giving him the sort of handshake peculiar to men of a certain age that involves an interlocking palm-to-palm thumb grasp that pulls back into a fingerlock and may or may not end with a double back pat manhug. From the moment I got in the car, Mike acted as if we already knew each other and just peeled out of the parking lot onto Harper Rd with no explanation beyond telling me we were going to stop by a head shop for a second.
From a distance, Mike has all the makings of a scary looking dude: white guy with shaved head and goatee (check); built like a nightclub bouncer (check); always wears sunglasses so you can never tell where he’s looking (check); wide array of tattoos and piercings, including gaged ear lobes big enough to stick a drum stick through (double check). The only problem is that once you get up close to him the guy almost never stops smiling and spends most of his time prattling on in stoner philosopher fashion about the meaning of the universe or the finer points of West Virginia drug law like Jay & Silent Bob rolled into one.
“I’m serious, man. Synthetic weed is all I smoke anymore.” Mike told me. “It’s, like, a thinking man’s high. It makes you want to converse with people about all kinda things.”
“Like what?” I asked.
“Like, I’ll smoke some spice and it’s just like, I want to watch documentaries and shit, you know? It makes me wanna read the news and get educated. It’s not like with regular weed where you just want to sink into the couch and take a nap or whatever. It makes me want to be productive. But, it also gives you awful cotton mouth.” Mike stopped and opened his mouth wide like he was about to yawn. “Speaking of which, do you mind if I have a bit of your coke? I drank mine in about 5 minutes and I’m still…my mouth is just really dry.”
“No problem man.” I said, handing him the Coke Zero I had been drinking. “Go nuts.”
Mike took two long swigs before passing the bottle back to me and turning into an underdeveloped strip mall in the middle of what looked to me to be nowhere. “We’re here.” He said. “Just come with me, act cool and don’t say anything. The guy who owns this place doesn’t exactly advertise where he’s located, so he’s normally wary of anybody coming in he’s never seen before.”
“Would he think I’m a narc or something?” I asked.
“Probably, and he’s got good reason to. The guy’s been raided by the DEA and state police enough times that he’s started jumping around to different locations pretty regularly. Next time he gets caught is his 3rd strike, which means he wouldn’t be getting out of prison for a long time.”
“Exactly how illegal is synthetic weed?” I asked Mike as we got out of the truck and started walking to the shop.
“It’s a felony to sell or possess the stuff, so I’d say it’s pretty illegal in West Virginia. At least, as illegal as regular weed is.” Mike said.
When we walked into the store, I found it was filled mostly with the requisite accoutrements of any decent head shop: there was a lot of Bob Marley merchandise, some Deadhead gear, anything you’d ever want associated with Dark Side of the Moon and a cornucopia of water pipes, papers, bongs, bubblers, and vaporizers to purchase and puff away on. However, up in the front, in the glass case underneath a few pieces and some those energy pills you find at truck stops, were a series of brightly colored pouches that were about the size and shape of a small pack of Chiclets, which contained various blends and brands of synthetic marijuana. If you wanted to buy some of the stuff, which is also known by the names Spice and K2, you couldn’t simply walk up to the man behind the counter and ask him for their finest vintage of synthetic weed. The protocol called for the customer to ask the employee for the weed by brand name, so someone might ask for a pack of Black Mamba or some Scooby Snax(1). Mike ended up getting a brand called Funky Monkey, which came in a little plastic canister rather than an aluminum pouch, so even though it didn’t cost too much at $25, it at least looked more expensive that some of the other brands there. I didn’t say a word until we were back in Mike’s truck and pulling out of the strip mall.
“So…what’d you think about the shop?” Mike asked.
“I don’t know.” I said. “From the way you described it, I thought there would me more people in there or something.”
Mike nodded as he lit a cigarette. “Yeah, I hear you. Normally it’s a lot busier over there. Man, you should see that place at 12 o’ clock on the weekends. I’m telling you, there are guys lined up out the door waiting to get that shit. And these are like, miners come straight from work so they’re covered in coal and soot and grime and shit. All to get some Kratom.”
“What the hell is Kratom?” I asked him.
“Kratom? It’s kind of like synthetic dope. I think it came from somewhere in Asia or something. All the miners in south West Virginia take it so they can pass their piss tests.”
“Do you ever use it?”
“I actually did some this morning.” Mike said as he turned his truck onto I-77 on ramp. “I had to mow a couple of lawns and I took some Kratom and it was like, boom…I was just off, man! And, it’s not like it gives you some crazy cokehead high. With Kratom, you get this very specific, focused high. It makes you want to do shit. I could mow lawns all damn day on Kratom because you just get, like, locked in to whatever it is you’re doing. I don’t do it too often, but it’s good stuff.”
“What about spice?” I asked.
“I’d say I’ve probably been smoking spice for about 5 years now, but I’ve slowed down a lot recently.” Mike told me. “I smoke just about every other day now, but I used to be real deep in it. Like, when I first started out, I’d go through a vial a day, easy. Fast forward to today and I can make that same vial last a week.”
“Why do you think you slowed down so much?”
Mike paused and started tugging on his goatee with one hand while he turn off the highway with the other. “It’s hard to figure out why, but I’d probably say the main reason I don’t smoke as much is my wife and the kids. Well, that and it can get exhausting doing that shit day in and day out, you know?”
“Do you smoke around your wife?” I asked.
“Nah, I don’t smoke around her. And I definitely don’t smoke around my kids. Christina, she doesn’t touch the stuff and she don’t like it when I smoke around her, so I just…you know…don’t. She doesn’t care if I want to smoke a little spice or whatever on my own time, but she just doesn’t want it in the house and I can respect that.”
As he was talking, Mike pulled the truck into the parking lot of Tamarack, a touristy destination right off of the West Virginia Turnpike that showcases and sells the work of a bunch of West Virginia artists in one convenient location, replete with a food court and a conference center and the like. Once we had stopped, Mike pulled a little one-hitter he had tucked away in the center console and started packing it with some of the Funky Monkey he’d just purchased at the head shop. It looked like real weed, but when he started smoking it, the spice gave off a weird, musky scent that smelled a bit like sawdust. It wasn’t appealing, but it wasn’t unpleasant. It was just, fake.
After a few hits, he placed the piece back in the center console and asked if he could bum one of my Pall Malls. I handed him my pack after pulling one out for myself and we both smoked in silence for a while until Mike couldn’t keep quiet any longer.
“So, what about you?”
“What about me, what?” I asked.
“I mean, you told me you don’t drink or smoke or whatever, but is that like, because you never did it or, you know…” Mike stopped to re-light the end of his fire safe cigarette. “You did it and had to stop doing it?”
“The latter…not the former.” I said.
“You in the program or anything?” Mike asked.
I reached in my pocket and pulled out a 4-year sobriety coin that I keep on me most times. He took the coin from me and his face lit up.
“No shit?!” Mike said, reaching down beneath his seat, yanking his right leg up on the dashboard and pulling up his jeans to reveal a Narcotics Anonymous symbol tattooed on the back of his calf. “I had about three years of clean time a few years ago.”
“Seriously?” I asked.
“Yeah,” Mike said as he flicked his cigarette butt out the window of his truck. “I wasn’t really doing the deal though. I mean, I chaired meetings and all that, but I never got a sponsor and I never worked the steps. I was still drinking and smoking weed for some of the time I was clean. Honestly, I was mainly there for social aspect of it, you know? All the same, I think it served its purpose. I don’t touch the hard shit anymore and I just smoke up every now and then to relax. It’s not a problem like it was back then.”
“When was back then?” I asked.
“Around the time I started coming around the rooms, but it was a long time coming.” he told me. “Things weren’t too great growing up and I started using pretty early. I was brought up in a family that was always pretending to be middle class, but never quite pulling it off. My dad was a raging drunk who was abusive towards my mother and me. To be honest, I’ve blocked out entire parts of my childhood that I’m probably never going to get back. I don’t want ’em back.”
Mike paused for just long enough to pull his one hitter out of the console and take one last big hit before knocking whatever ash remained out the window with the butt of his lighter.
“I was just a fat kid who got ridiculed at school and got the shit kicked out of him at home. And the crazy thing is, nobody knew about it. My dad moved us out to the suburbs even though we were always struggling with money, and he just fooled everyone. All our neighbors thought we had a nice middle-class suburban life going on inside our home. Man, if they could’ve seen the shit that went on behind those doors. And the crazy thing is, they’re actually still together. I have no idea how they pulled it off, but they did it. I wouldn’t say they have a healthy relationship now, but its better than it was. My dad still drinks, but he’s mellowed a lot with age. He’s actually a pretty good grandpa to the boys, which is amazing, but at the same time, I’m kinda like, ‘where the fuck was this guy 25 years ago?’ You know? At the very least, the man provided me with the blueprint for how not to be a father and a husband. If I just do the opposite of what he did, I figure things will turn out alright.”
After sending this article to Mike, he informed me that:
(a) he was 3 months clean and sober.
(b) he now speaks out about synthetic drug awareness and is doing all he can to get spice and other synthetics out of his community and
(c) “Synthetic pot will destroy every aspect of your life and ill be the first to say it”
(1) And you thought Big Tobacco was good at marketing to kids? Joe Camel ain’t got shit on synthetic weed peddling Scooby Doo.