At Coffee Wonk, Micah Riggs built a synthetic-pot empire 

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"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."

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