It's been more than a year since Micah Riggs opened his coffee shop at the corner of 35th Street and Broadway, and though few of his neighboring businessmen have spoken to him, or would even recognize him, they hear things.
"He's busy down there," says Kenny, a bartender with dull-black spectacles and a drooping belly. Kenny slides a bottle of Budweiser across the pine at Outabounds, the midtown bar that caters to gay sports fans. "I think one of his guys threw a brick through the window on another guy's shop selling the same stuff."
Down the street, men can be seen sitting on the bench outside Riggs' shop, Coffee Wonk. The tips of cheap cigarettes glow in the gray twilight. In the opposite direction, a competing store's neon sign promises Syn, the latest name for synthetic marijuana. "I might have that backwards," Kenny says, referring to that store. "Maybe they threw something through his window. They get competitive."
Larry Sells also knows about Riggs' shop. The owner of the Uptown Theater, Sells has worked on Broadway for 20 years. "I've never met him, but I've heard about the place," Sells says, sitting at a table inside the Conspiracy Room, which he also owns. "If he's working legitimately, he's good for the block and that's fine."
Another block closer to Westport, News Room owner Kenny McGraw isn't so sure. On a recent afternoon, as he laments the neighborhood's demise, the worst of Broadway is just outside his window. The McDonald's across the street was robbed just this morning, and a man was shot to death in the parking lot a couple of months back. Drug dealers loiter outside the CSL Plasma Center, waiting for fresh donors to come out with cash.
It isn't all bad: Through the same window, McGraw can see the recording studio that Riggs bought this year. Another nearby storefront will soon house a restaurant that Riggs plans to open. But for the moment, McGraw doesn't know about those developments. He only knows how Riggs made enough money to buy those things, and that the cops had enough questions about the enterprise to raid Riggs' shop.
"If he wants to put money in, great, and if he thinks he can help, great," McGraw says. "I've been in Coffee Wonk, and it's an all-right place. But maybe he's just making money off the bad element he says he wants to get rid of, and maybe he's just helping to attract it. We'll just have to wait and see what he does."
Coffee Wonk isn't the most welcoming café. The front window is obscured by the bulging cartoonish letters of the shop's name. Found inside: a counter with plastic-wrapped muffins and a blackboard menu of lattes and mochas. Also, a pool table that looks like it's been around since 9-ball was invented. That's about it.
Riggs, the shop's 28-year-old owner, absentmindedly runs his hand over the top of his skull, where a tangle of shoulder-length hair was recently shaved off. He wears a fading steel-blue T-shirt, the jeans of a house painter and ratty sneakers. When he first opens his mouth, you wonder if there's a second, more interesting conversation running through his head that you're not part of.
As Riggs talks, a man in a leather jacket walks through the door. He waves off the greeting from the cashier and makes for the pool table. Riggs gnaws his lower lip. He doesn't like drug dealers in his shop, but store owners on this stretch of Broadway can't screen their patrons and expect to keep their businesses.
"I can't be a vigilante," he says. "That crack dealer behind me? The police aren't going to kick that crack dealer out of here. They're just not. But the more I put the money back into Broadway, the more I'm going to change the area."
Riggs opened the shop in August 2009, thinking he could attract some commuters with a few nice coffee blends. Business was slow at first. He moved a handful of muffins on a good day, maybe a few dozen cups of coffee. The customers who did come in were loyal, at least. More than a year later, a skeletal street dancer named J-Wizz can still be found lounging in the shop's sole booth.
"Those were very long months," Riggs says. "I was still washing dishes at a restaurant to keep up with the bills when I wasn't working here."
But not long after he opened, something changed.
As a former student at the University of Kansas, Riggs was familiar with Salvia, a potent (and legal) psychoactive plant that was sold in Lawrence head shops for a few months in 2008, before lawmakers banned it. He especially remembers the lines weaving along the sidewalks outside the stores that sold it.
In the summer of 2009, around the time that Riggs opened his shop, those same stores started selling something called K2, a leafy, powdered "incense" that acts as a carrier for a sheen of synthetic cannabinoids. When smoked, the cannabinoids interact with the brain's receptors in the same way that marijuana does, and they produce a similar effect. Little is known about the long-term health effects of K2, which was developed as part of a research project at Clemson University in 1994.
At the height of the drug's popularity, Lawrence stores reported selling tens of thousands of dollars' worth every month, in 3-gram bags containing what looked like crushed potpourri.
"At the time, I was actually saving money for a roaster," Riggs says. "I was studying roasting, blending, all this stuff about fresh beans, because most coffee shops don't make their money selling lattes. They make their money selling their own beans. With K2, I kept hearing about blending it, and all this stuff that sounded exactly like what I heard with roasting beans."
Sensing a business opportunity, Riggs invited a distributor to his shop, along with a few friends interested in sampling K2. They took the 3-gram bags into the parking lot behind the coffee shop and, with Riggs watching, they lit up.
"They didn't seem high like stoners seem high," Riggs recalls. "If they hadn't told me they had just burned some K2, I would never have known. There was just something about it where they didn't seem unresponsive but mellow."
Riggs started carrying K2 in late 2009. A few months later, in March of this year, Kansas Gov. Mark Parkinson signed a bill banning JWH-018 and JWH-073, the synthetic cannabinoids active in K2. But across the state line at Coffee Wonk, the ban only helped business — especially after KSHB Channel 41 news ran a story about Missouri businesses that carried K2.
Before synthetic pot, when Coffee Wonk was struggling to survive as a coffee shop, an average day meant $150 in sales, Riggs says. After that news story hit, he says, he could make that much in an hour.
"I really don't know that anyone around me noticed," he says. "Most of my business was, and still is, grab and go. You're not going to see my shop full of people. It's just walk in, grab a bag and go. I know people around me were discussing it, but I don't think anyone ever really knew exactly how much money I was making. I don't think anyone got close to guessing."
Finally, in July, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon signed a law banning K2 — one of eight statewide bans signed into law this year. But Riggs wasn't worried about complying with the law. By then, he already knew that there was more than one way to keep his customers happy.
When Riggs wonders whether a new product is ready for market, he has to rely on friends. As a businessman, he is in the odd position of being unable to evaluate his own wares because, he says, he has never been high. He doesn't even drink.
Riggs was raised in a traditional Mormon household where liquor, drugs and cigarettes were off-limits. And for the first 10 years of his life, which he spent moving from town to town in Southern California chasing his father's job, Riggs accepted this. But before he was a teenager, he started to grow skeptical.
"Mormons have to wear special underwear to protect them. They believe the Garden of Eden is in Missouri — the actual Garden of Eden," he says, rattling off some of Mormonism's most ridiculed tenets. "There's Baptism of the Dead, where the youth meet in this big pool with 12 sculptures of oxen around it representing these 12 tribes of Israel, and you're supposed to get baptized for all those people who didn't have the privilege to be Mormon. I remember thinking, 'Cool. I'll get to be Babe Ruth!' Then I really thought about it, and it didn't seem right. At all. I told my parents I didn't want to be a Mormon anymore when I was 10."
He left the faith but he retained the abstinence, he says. His family moved to Kansas when he was 12, and Riggs wound up enrolling at KU. College was the first time that he saw anyone on drugs; his freshman-year roommate smoked with friends, but Riggs waved away the pipe.
Riggs loved his classes — he majored in East Asian studies — but he soon discovered that he wasn't built for academic life. On test days, he says, he would sit in classes staring at the blank essay book. He'd finally start writing with an hour left on the clock and, on a good day, finish with one page filled.
"I had one professor come up to me and point-blank say, 'Listen, a lot of people just BS this. Just write something,'" he says. "I couldn't do it. I didn't want my name on it if it wasn't something new, something that I thought was really me coming up with something new. And the more books I read, all I was sure of was that I didn't know shit. That's how I ended up going into therapy."
Psychologists diagnosed Riggs with attention-deficit disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, general anxiety disorder, and a few other tics that made basic academic work seem impossible. He dropped out and started working one menial job after another. His dream was to one day finance a film about a community-college student who starts performing as Jesus Christ at kids' birthday parties.
"Later on, a doctor told me that I had a perfect profile to become someone who abused drugs and alcohol," he says. "So all and all, it's probably been for the best that I never touched it."
Coffee Wonk's biggest night was the night its most popular product became illegal.
It was a Friday in August — a month after Gov. Nixon signed the law criminalizing K2 in Missouri. At exactly midnight, the ban on K2 would take effect.
The laws were already a step behind. In Kansas and Missouri, only the specific JWH synthetic cannabinoids would be outlawed. But the synthetic cannabinoid compound is a large chemical structure with hundreds of variations, some of which bond with the brain's cannabinoid receptors to get you high, some of which don't. After the structures being used in K2 were banned, the anonymous chemists who produced and distributed these drugs simply moved down the line, settling on the next deviation that got you high.
While the rest of Kansas City's K2 salesmen were emptying their inventories and waiting to unveil the new stuff, Riggs seized the opportunity to let people know that a new party was about to start. More important, it was a way to make sure they knew Coffee Wonk was at the center of it. He called it the "Great Midwestern Burnout."
To be safe, Riggs didn't advertise the event's location, telling customers instead to come into the shop for details. Not that the locale was all that clandestine: The event happened just down the street, in the parking lot behind another building that Riggs had recently bought. By 10 p.m., the lot was packed with people saying what they thought was goodbye to synthetic weed, lighting up joints and listening to bands that had volunteered their services. The police didn't notice or didn't care.
Riggs spent the last hour of the night making sure his K2 supply was gone before the clock hit midnight. Then he walked onto a stage and unveiled the new strain, called Heaven Scent. (Now it's more popularly known as Syn.)
Syn kept the customers coming, and with a bill already passed, lawmakers stopped talking about the need to protect underage children from mysterious drugs. Every store that sold K2 started offering Syn or one of the dozens of new varieties being distributed.
It's not even confined to specialty shops anymore. The cashier windows of many midtown gas stations are now wallpapered with 3-gram bags of incense, branded with the words "Not for Human Consumption." They go by K3, KFREE and a dozen other names. So far, no politician has tried to stop any of them.
With the money still flowing, Riggs has expanded. This summer he bought that second building, two blocks south of Coffee Wonk. You wouldn't know it by its dull-beige façade, but inside is a cavernous recording studio, where newly relocated Highpoint Recording has been making everything from Christian rock to a Christmas album produced by Rick Derringer, the '70s one-hit wonder.
"The first time I met Micah, I didn't know what to think," says Highpoint owner Joe Mills, who moved his business from Lenexa into Riggs' studio. "But he didn't wear a suit or a tie, and he treated everyone with respect, so that was a good start."
Around the same time, Riggs also purchased space in an empty storefront on 39th Street, where he plans to open Amor Picante, a South American restaurant.
His cannabinoid dream reaches beyond Kansas City, too. Next month he'll open a second Coffee Wonk, in Cocoa Beach, Florida — a tourist spot in the shadow of NASA's base at Cape Canaveral. K2 is still legal in Florida, and Riggs is working to keep it that way.
"This is a business issue for me, but it's also an individual-liberty issue," he says. "If we can make this a way to argue about medical marijuana, I'm happy to do that. I just think that if people want to smoke, as long as they're not hurting anyone and they're not abusing, let them do it in their own homes."
To protect his investment in Florida, Riggs has hired Brady Benford, a Tallahassee lobbyist whose clients include R.J. Reynolds Tobacco and the Churchill Downs racetrack. Benford's job is to make sure Syn gets a fair chance at the market. But for now, he sounds fairly unequipped to do so.
"I'd never heard of anything like it before," Benford says in a phone interview. "I really don't know if there's any template for how to deal with anything like this. I do know I'm not the only lobbyist Micah's spoken with. I'm sure he'll have people working for him in other states. But I don't know how anyone is going to proceed because the media coverage of Syn and K2 has always been so negative. It's hard to get a fair hearing for these chemicals that, really, no one knows about and no one really knows if they're harmful or not.
"I think there'll be some people at the Statehouse who'll be willing to listen that there's a need for research. Beyond that, I really don't know how we deal with it," he adds. "Honestly, I'm sure just about everyone in Missouri knows more about this than me right now."
Benford's work in Florida may not matter. Earlier this week, the Drug Enforcement Administration enacted a temporary emergency ban on five chemicals used to manufacture Syn and K2. Starting on December 24, synthetic marijuana will be illegal — on the same level as heroin, cocaine and actual weed — for the next 12 to 18 months, while the Department of Health and Human Services researches them. The people making money off these products haven't yet mounted a defense, if they even plan to.
"[I'm] still selling until it becomes official," Riggs e-mailed The Pitch after the ban was announced.
The woman working the register picks up her black ballpoint pen as soon as the customer comes in, as though she already knows what he wants. In khakis and a baby-blue polo, the visitor doesn't dress anything like the people loitering on the sidewalks on this early October afternoon. A clamshell cell phone is clipped to the brown belt holding the office-worker ensemble together.
"Can I get a bag of the Smooth?" he asks, referring to one of the nine flavors of "incense" that Coffee Wonk carries.
"Sorry, the police took everything," she tells him. "We're supposed to have stuff back within a week. So come back in a couple days and hopefully we can help you out."
He nods and leaves quietly. She lowers the pen to a piece of ruled notebook paper, adding a tick to the 200 or so little ink lines, a tally that started after the police showed up four days ago. It's a way to remind Riggs how much money he's losing at $30 a bag.
Riggs was home when he got the call from his barista. At around 7:30 a.m. on an October morning, an unidentified man burst into Coffee Wonk, pointed a gun at the cashier and demanded the contents of the register. Like anyone who was just robbed, she called the cops. But after they took statements about the robbery, Riggs says, the officers started asking questions about what Riggs was selling.
"I tried to tell them that this is a totally different compound from the stuff that was banned," Riggs says. "He told me I ought to sign off on a search, just as a sign of good faith that would help things along. I thought it was the right thing, and I want to get along with the police. I guess I was stupid."
Besides confiscating the Syn, the police raided the laboratory above the store, where Riggs and a recent KU graduate were trying to break down the ingredients in Syn. Riggs insists that the lab was barely on a par with kids' chemistry sets sold in toy stores. A few beakers, a handful of test tubes, he says.
"There were a lot of books and a lot of chemicals with long scary names," he says. "I think they wanted to see if any of it could be used for meth production."
Riggs' lab technician studied pharmaceutical chemistry. (An aspiring med student, he spoke on the condition that his name not be used.) He says he was investigating Syn's effect on the body when the cops raided the lab.
"We didn't get too far before we got shut down," he says.
The tech says he did surmise that acetone is commonly used as a bonding agent. An organic compound, acetone is most often used to make plastic, fibers, drugs and other chemicals, and it's a known carcinogen. But the tech argues that the presence of acetone isn't enough to harm anyone.
"It has such a low boiling point, it probably evaporates completely when you light the incense," he says. "You can buy the stuff at Home Depot. It's not hard to get."
The DEA obviously thinks otherwise. And local authorities may as well. KCPD spokesman Darin Snapp tells The Pitch that the seized incense was tested by a lab. The results have not been released because the investigation is ongoing, he says. But the department is preparing to turn over evidence to prosecutors, who could decide to file charges against Riggs.
I want to show you something," Riggs says.
He ushers me out of his shop, leaving the drug dealer at the pool table and passing a new customer walking in the door. It's been three weeks since his store was robbed. Rather than wait for the police, Riggs has decided to restock on his own. Business is slowly returning.
"There's a lot of competition for the business. If people couldn't come to me, they'd go down the block," he says. "One of these guys selling it actually came by my shop riding a Segway — a Segway! — just to show me how much money he was making. It's crazy."
We walk north on Broadway, and it's not long before the neighborhood starts to look a little better. Just one block away, the corner loiterers vanish.
Riggs stops in front of a vacant storefront. There's a real-estate sign in the window.
"I think this could be something," he says. "Maybe turn it into a Kinkos. There's the Veterans of Foreign Wars close by, there's the insurance guys, there's a community college. There's a lot of great IT departments that really need some good service. We can really do something with this place, you know? Make it a benefit to the area. Maybe get some white-collar gigs. It's a pain because there's no Best Buy or anything else. It's not like there's a Wal-Mart around."
As we walk back toward Coffee Wonk, I mention that Broadway is a good street for bars. Sells has made the Conspiracy Room a destination for fundraisers and scenesters. And we're not far from Westport, one of the city's most popular nightlife spots. How about a Wonk nightclub?
"When the restaurant opens, it'll have a bar, but bars don't offer much," he says. "With a restaurant, people can get together and have fun and not just get drunk. Fights break out all the time; there's all this negativity. Yeah, you're making money. But who'd want to make money such a miserable way?"