Julia Cox didn’t expect her synthetic marijuana would make people ill. In fact, she wasn’t even certain it was illegal.
Still, she’ll spend the next four years behind bars for a drug-distribution conspiracy that police uncovered last year while investigating a spate of serious kidney illnesses in Casper.
A federal judge Wednesday sentenced the 59-year-old to prison for distributing the Spice that hospitalized a teenager. Cox had earlier pleaded no contest to avoid the possibility of a decades-long prison sentence.
“I want to apologize for what happened,” she said, as she tearfully addressed the judge inside a Casper courtroom. “I not only hurt a child, but my life. I just want to put this nightmare behind me.”
Cox and her co-defendant, Kari Lee Steelman, did not dispute their roles in distributing synthetic marijuana. The women thought they were selling a legal variety of the drug, according to their attorneys.
The women dealt a type of synthetic marijuana that was not listed as a controlled substance at the time. Federal law, though, allows prosecution for similar substances.
Casper police began investigating the women when four people were hospitalized last year after smoking synthetic marijuana. The patients, who ranged in age from 15 to 21, suffered serious kidney illnesses but eventually recovered.
"Neither party had any idea that what did happen would happen," said Assistant Federal Defender James Barrett, who represented Cox.
The illnesses sparked a health alert that eventually uncovered a dozen more cases in five states. The cases marked the first time doctors linked synthetic marijuana with kidney injuries.
In September, a federal grand jury indicted Steelman and Cox with conspiracy and distribution charges. Cox supplied the synthetic marijuana to Steelman, who then sold the drug to customers, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephanie Sprecher, who prosecuted the case.
The plea deal allowed Judge Scott Skavdahl to impose a prison sentence of between three and five years. He decided on four years, 2 months.
Cox, who suffers from a variety of health problems of her own, was lucky that she was being sentenced for distribution, Skavdahl said. If circumstances had been different, it could have been murder.
“The bottom line is people were injured, drugs were distributed and the law was violated,” he told her.
Steelman has also pleaded no contest to conspiracy and drug distribution charges as part of a plea deal that calls for her to serve three to five years in prison. Her sentencing is set for August.