Bizarro is a page-turning tale of the unprecedented prosecution of Burton Ritchie and Ben Galecki, the Florida-based founders of a sprawling “spice” (synthetic cannabinoid) operation. With this book, journalist and former New York City narcotics prosecutor Jordan S. Rubin exposes a Reagan-era law called the Analogue Act, which targets dealers selling drugs that are “substantially similar” to controlled substances—an unwieldy law that produces erratic results in court. Rubin brings readers deep inside the synthetic war, exploring how Ritchie and Galecki landed in its crosshairs and why one of the DEA’s own chemists may have been their best chance at freedom, until he was arrested too. This stranger-than-fiction narrative is backed by thousands of pages of court records and exclusive interviews with defendants, lawyers, law enforcement, celebrities, and more. Bizarro reveals the world of underground chemists making drugs faster than the government can ban them, dealers making millions in a gray market, and a justice system run amok.
Jordan S. Rubin is a journalist and a former prosecutor for the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, where he was assigned to the Office of the Special Narcotics Prosecutor.
Bizarro tells a stranger-than-fiction story that hasn’t been told before. How did you get your hands on it?
It all started with a tip. In 2018, a lawyer for Burton Ritchie reached out to me, hoping that I would look into a story filled with government misconduct and innocent people imprisoned under a vague law. Admittedly, I was skeptical at first. As a former prosecutor and a journalist, I had heard it all before. Not that innocent people aren’t convicted or that government agents don’t abuse their authority, but I wanted to see for myself. As I dug in, I found that not only was there something to the story, but that the case and the law at issue were both stranger than I could have imagined. Not to mention the motley crew of characters that populate the story, both inside and outside of the government.
What was so strange about the law that you write about in Bizarro?
It’s called the Controlled Substance Analogue Enforcement Act, or the Analogue Act for short. It was signed into law in 1986 by President Ronald Reagan at the height of the War on Drugs, with bipartisan support in Congress (including from then-Senator Joe Biden). The problem, in law enforcement’s view, was that underground chemists were tweaking drug molecules to make them different enough from banned drugs but similar enough that they still got people high. It was a cat-and-mouse game, where new drugs emerged faster than the government could ban them.
The Reagan Justice Department pushed the Analogue Act as the solution to that problem. It banned drugs that are “substantially similar” to specifically banned ones. But “substantially similar” isn’t a scientific term, so there’s no way to know for sure what’s banned until the government brings charges. And even then, it’s up to juries at trial to decide what counts as an “analogue,” so, in practice, a substance becomes illegal under the Analogue Act when a jury says so. Therefore, the law theoretically bans an infinite number of substances—whatever the government can convince a jury is substantially similar to an already banned drug.
And that’s just the weirdness of the law itself. The plot thickened when I looked into how the government has wielded the Analogue Act. It turns out that DEA chemists decide what substances can be considered analogues before prosecutors bring charges— that is, the DEA effectively decides what’s legal and illegal. And the agency doesn’t publicize those findings, so people trying not to violate the law can’t consult a list like they can for traditionally banned drugs. I also learned that DEA chemists haven’t always agreed amongst themselves about what counts as an analogue, and that when they’ve disagreed, the government hasn’t always been forthcoming about those disagreements. In particular, the Justice Department fought to stop one of those dissenting DEA chemists, Arthur Berrier, from testifying in court for defendants. And in one of Bizarro’sstranger-than-fiction twists, Berrier himself was arrested while defendants were seeking to put him on the stand.
And what was so strange about the Ritchie case itself?
I’ve prosecuted hundreds of drug cases, but I’d never heard of one where the supposed kingpin of the enterprise calls the cops on himself. But that’s essentially what happened here. Back in the early 2010s, Burton Ritchie and Ben Galecki ran a Florida-based company that made millions of dollars selling a drug known as “spice” or “K2,” a seemingly legal cannabis substitute that could be much more volatile than the natural plant. Burton and Ben, who crossed paths as teenagers in Narcotics Anonymous decades prior, lab-tested their spice ingredients to make sure they didn’t contain banned substances. So when the DEA raided their warehouse in 2012, Burton got on the phone with a DEA agent and invited the agent to their facility to inspect the product and the operation himself.
The agent took Burton up on the invitation and Burton gave the agent samples of their product—all of which were marketed under catchy brand names, like “Bizarro.” The agent didn’t arrest them at the time, but Burton and Ben were nonetheless charged under the Analogue Act years later, at a point in their lives when they had left the synthetic-drug industry and moved on to careers as independent film producers, working with celebrities like Kevin Pollak and Samm Levine. When Burton and Ben went to trial—they were actually tried three times—they wanted to call that dissenting DEA chemist, Berrier, to the stand, because Berrier thought that the spice they sold was legal under the Analogue Act. But the judge blocked Berrier from testifying.
What do you hope that readers take away from Bizarro?
I think that different readers will draw different moral conclusions about the characters in the story, both inside and outside of the government. My point isn’t to convince anyone how they should feel one way or the other. But I think that people should at least be aware of the Analogue Act, because I found while researching and writing the book that even many lawyers had never heard of this law before. As drug legalization and the war on drugs in general is top of mind these days, I wanted to make sure that this little-known battle in the war—which is still raging—gets its due. And given how vague the Analogue Act is, I also think that people should be aware of how the government has wielded it, including by trying to stifle dissent and even giving potentially untruthful testimony in court, as I explain in the book.