Feds Announce Biggest-Ever Synthetic Drug Seizure
Federal investigators have broken up an international drug trafficking ring that specialized in the manufacture and sale of dangerous synthetic drugs, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the Drug Enforcement Administration.
The investigation, known as Project Synergy, began in late 2012 and ended in June 2013 with a string of 150 arrests and 375 executed search warrants. The operation covered 35 U.S. states, 49 cities and five countries, including Australia, Barbados, Panama and Canada. The probe also unearthed an immense stream of drug money flowing to the Middle East and elsewhere. More than $51 million in cash and assets were seized, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
The ring’s commodities, designer synthetic drugs, are addictive and highly toxic. The drugs often are sold as bath salts, herbal incense, plant food and jewelry cleaner, officials say.
Synthetic cannabinoids, marketed as herbal incense and also known as synthetic marijuana, consist of plant material mixed with chemicals that mimic THC, the active ingredient in marijuana. In 2012, poison centers nationwide received almost 5,300 calls about exposures to synthetic cannabinoids, according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers.
The drugs can cause suicidal thoughts, psychotic episodes, seizures, and elevated heart rate and blood pressure.
Similar reactions are associated with the use of synthetic cathinones, which are sold as bath salts or plant food. The drugs contain substances that mimic cocaine, LSD and methamphetamine, and also can produce violent episodes, according to the DEA.
In 2012, nearly 2,700 calls were made to poison control centers following the use of bath salts, the American Association of Poison Control Centers reported.
The popularity of synthetic drugs has grown in recent years, especially among young people. Many synthetics can be purchased at retail stores or online, although there is no oversight of the manufacturing process, according to the DEA.
Coordinated by the DEA’s Office of Diversion Control, Project Synergy also included investigations led by Customs and Border Protection, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Internal Revenue Service. International, state and local law enforcement agencies also participated.
Over the course of the six-month operation, investigators made 227 arrests and seized nearly 10,000 kilograms of synthetic drugs packaged for individual sale. These included 299 kilograms of bath salts and 1,225 kilograms of cannabinoid drugs.
“Shutting down businesses that traffic in these drugs and attacking their operations worldwide is a priority for DEA and our law enforcement partners,” DEA Administrator Michele Leonhart said in a June statement. “These designer drugs are destructive, dangerous and are destroying lives.”