By Daniel Wallis
DENVER (Reuters) - A 68-year-old Las Vegas man will serve five years in federal prison for his role as kingpin of a criminal organization that distributed the so-called synthetic marijuana "Spice" for sale across the country, a U.S. judge ruled on Monday.
U.S. District Court Judge Philip Brimmer also ordered John Bowen to pay $1.8 million and forfeit three real estate properties in Florida.
Health and law enforcement officials started an investigation after 221 visits to Denver and Colorado Springs hospital emergency rooms related to synthetic cannabis use were recorded in just two months starting in August 2013.
Medical experts say Spice is much more potent than marijuana and provokes erratic behavior. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control warned in June that calls to poison control centers and deaths from overdoses of the drug were on the rise.
After months-long investigation, Bowen was indicted in May 2014 by a federal grand jury in Denver. According to court documents, he organized the distribution of Spice made using a chemical product imported to Florida from China.
In Florida, it was sprayed on a green vegetable substance that was then packaged and shipped to wholesalers and retailers in Colorado and throughout the United States, the office of John Walsh, U.S. attorney for Colorado, said in a statement.
Eight other people from across the country also were charged with conspiracy and drug distribution charges related to the case, it said. Seven of them have been convicted and sentenced to date.
Bowen operated under the name The Really Cool Stuff Company, prosecutors said, but changed it to Heart of Asia after the product received negative media attention.
Walsh's office said the illegal Spice was sold at corner stores and gas stations in Colorado and that the defendants also shipped it to retail outlets in other states including Wisconsin, Illinois, and Nebraska.
Walsh said the product can make individuals very ill and even kill them.
Bowen will serve three years of supervised release after his sentence for conspiracy to defraud the United States, distribute controlled substances and money laundering.
(Reporting by Daniel Wallis; Editing by Bill Trott)