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Top China-Based Global Designer Drug Trafficker Arrested in U.S.
DEA and IRS Criminal Investigation lead effort to arrest Haijun Tian at LAX following 3-year investigation; DEA and China jointly investigating Tian’s manufacturing and trafficking of synthetic drugs in China

MAY 28 (MILWAUKEE) ― Federal law enforcement officials today announced the arrest of Chinese National Haijun Tian, the highest-level synthetic designer drug trafficker apprehended to date in the United States. Agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and Internal Revenue Service’s Office of Criminal Investigation (IRS) arrested Tian at Los Angeles International Airport on March 4, while he was attempting to enter the United States from the People’s Republic of China.  The DEA is working with the Ministry of Public Security (MPS) of the People’s Republic of China, which has initiated its own investigation into TIAN, his associates, and relevant companies.  The DEA and MPS continue to exchange information in this joint investigation into the manufacturing and trafficking of synthetic cannabinoid compounds and other dangerous drugs.

Tian’s arrest was the centerpiece of Operation Poisyn Control, a three-year investigation into the large-scale manufacturing and trafficking of drugs known as synthetic cannabinoids and commonly referred to on the street as “K2,” “Spice,” “fake pot,” or synthetic marijuana.

On December 9, 2014, a grand jury in the Eastern District of Wisconsin, based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, issued a sealed three-count indictment charging TIAN with importing the synthetic cannabinoid chemical and schedule I controlled substance AB-FUBINACA into the United States from the People’s Republic of China.  The indictment further charges TIAN with manufacturing AB-FUBINACA in the People’s Republic of China, knowing that the chemical would be unlawfully imported into the United States.  The indictment was unsealed following TIAN’s arrest in March.  TIAN made his initial appearance in Milwaukee, Wisconsin federal court on March 17, 2015, and trial is set for June 2015.

AB-FUBINACA, a Schedule I controlled substance, is one of many chemicals in a class of drugs known as synthetic cannabinoids.  Synthetic cannabinoids are substances created in laboratories that attempt to mimic some of the physiological effects of THC, the main psychoactive ingredient in marijuana.  Synthetic cannabinoid compounds are combined with smokable plant-based materials to create a smokable synthetic cannabinoid product that users abuse by smoking.  The adverse effects of ingesting synthetic cannabinoids include hallucinations, paranoia, tachycardia, and death. 

“Bringing to justice the criminals that are involved in these dangerous synthetic drugs is a priority for DEA and our law enforcement partners,” said Dennis Wichern, Special Agent in Charge of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration Chicago Field Division. “DEA has been—and always will be—at the forefront of targeting these new and emerging drugs that cause harm to our nation's youth.”

“Today's global economy demands this type of high-level coordinated approach by multiple agencies and authorities,” said Special Agent in Charge Shea Jones of the IRS Criminal Investigation St. Paul Field Office.  "IRS Criminal Investigation is committed to working with our law enforcement partners to follow the money globally in order to financially disrupt and dismantle synthetic drug trafficking organizations that threaten our local communities.”

This case is being prosecuted by the United States Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Wisconsin.  If convicted, TIAN faces up to 60 years in prison and up to a $3,000,000 fine. 
Operation Poisyn Control

In January and April of 2012, a DEA undercover agent purchased illicit synthetic cannabinoid products from TKO UNLIMITED LLC, based out of the Houston, Texas, and Tampa, Florida areas.  Those drugs were delivered to the Milwaukee-based undercover business, and testing later revealed that those products contained AM-2201, a synthetic cannabinoid.

In July 2012, as part of the first nation-wide, DEA – Special Operations Division (SOD) sponsored operation, Operation Log Jam, agents raided a synthetic cannabinoid product manufacturing facility in Tampa, Florida, associated with TKO UNLIMITED LLC and NATURAL HERBAL SOLUTIONS.  During the raid, agents seized thousands of kilograms of processed smokable cannabinoid products, approximately 200 kilograms of raw synthetic cannabinoid compound, a variety of firearms and in excess of $750,000.

Following the seizures, agents learned that most of the raw synthetic cannabinoid compound used in the TKO UNLIMITED LLC and NATURAL HERBAL SOLUTIONS manufacturing of the smokable cannabinoid products was supplied to the companies from sources inside the People’s Republic of China. Agents learned that the companies transferred hundreds of thousands of dollars per month to these Chinese-based sources to purchase the synthetic cannabinoid compounds, which were then secretly shipped from China to the United States through various ports.  The financial investigation showed large transfers from TKO UNLIMITED LLC and NATURAL HERBAL SOLUTIONS bank accounts in the United States to entities in China, including accounts identified as belonging to TIAN.

In November 2013, agents developed a confidential source that had purchased large quantities of synthetic cannabinoid compounds from TIAN dating as far back as May 2011.  The source used the synthetic cannabinoids to produce synthetic cannabinoid products under a variety of brand names, which were then distributed throughout the United States as “potpourri” and/or “incense.”
 Project Synergy

Following DEA’s successful nationwide operation Log Jam in July 2012, Project Synergy was initiated in December 2012 in order to provide a yet broader operational focus to DEA synthetic drug investigations.  The investigations under Project Synergy targeted additional Drug Trafficking Organizations (DTOs) that are involved in the illegal distribution of synthetic designer drugs to customers in the United States and worldwide. 

  • Phase II of Project Synergy began in January 1, 2014, and on May 7, 2014 nationwide law enforcement actions were conducted in 29 states.  The Project Synergy (Phase II) takedown was carried out based on 60 DEA investigations, and ICE-HSI also participated with seven investigations.  The takedown resulted in the arrest of 153 individuals and the seizure of nearly $39 million in cash and other assets; 17,363 kilograms of synthetic drugs packaged (19 tons); 2,621 kilograms of cannabinoids; 508 kilograms of cathinones/other synthetic drugs (Methylone and other analogues); 2,233 kilograms of treated plant material and 86 firearms.
  • Project Synergy continues to be coordinated by DEA Special Operations Division – Pharmaceutical & Chemical Internet Investigation Section (SOD-OSI) and DEA Office of Diversion Control (OD)
  • Various investigations under Project Synergy indicate that recipients of drug-related money transfers are located in various Middle-East countries such as Lebanon, Yemen, Jordan and Syria.
  • As of January 31, 2015, the overall Project Synergy effort has resulted in 429 arrests and the seizure of $145 million in cash/assets; 45 tons of synthetic drugs (packaged); 814 kilograms of cathinones; 6,132 kilograms of cannabinoids and other synthetic drugs (Methylone/other analogues).

Background on Changing Threat and Dangers of Synthetic Drugs

The two most common and recently encountered categories of new synthetic drugs are synthetic cannabinoids and synthetic cathinones.

  • Synthetic cannabinoids (sometimes sold under brand names such as “K2,” “Spice,” “fake pot,” or “synthetic marijuana”) continue to be drugs of considerable concern.  These depressant/hallucinogenic drugs are primarily sourced from China.  Synthetic cannabinoid substances are typically prepared for packaging in the U.S. and marketed over the Internet or supplied to retail distributors before being sold to the public at retail stores (e.g., “head shops,” convenience stores, gas stations, and liquor stores).  Laws governing the legality of the substances vary widely between states and the chemical components are frequently altered, making it difficult for the DEA to schedule the substances.
  • Synthetic cathinone substances fall under the phenethylamine class of stimulant/hallucinogenic drugs, and are marketed as “bath salts” or “glass cleaner,” among other street names.  These substances are often labeled “not intended for human consumption” as a false means to defend against the Government’s utilization of the federal Controlled Substance Analogue Enforcement Act. 

According to the National Forensic Laboratory Information System (NFLIS), seized substances identified as synthetic cannabinoids by federal, state, and local forensic laboratories increased from only 23 reports in 2009 to 32,784 reports in 2013; from January 1, 2014 through September 30, 2014, there were 23,568 synthetic cannabinoid reports in the NFLIS database.  Substances identified as synthetic cathinones increased from 29 reports in 2009 to 15,673 reports in 2013; from January 1, 2014 through September 30, 2014, there were 9,207 synthetic cathinone reports in NFLIS.

Data collected by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) in the Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN) for the national estimates of drug-related emergency department visits show that in 2010 there were 11,406 related emergency room (ER) admissions relating to synthetic cannabinoid ingestion.  That number increased more than two-fold in 2011 to 28,531.  For “bath salts” (synthetic cathinones), the first year this data was collected was in 2011 and there were 22,904 emergency room visits related to bath salt-type drugs.  This is the most recently published DAWN data available.

Data collected by the American Association of Poison Control Centers (AAPCC) shows that there were 3,677 calls to poison control centers nationwide for cannabinoid exposures during 2014. This is an increase from the 2,668 calls during 2013.

These dangerous drugs have caused significant abuse, addiction, overdoses, and emergency room visits. Those who have abused synthetic drugs have suffered vomiting, anxiety, agitation, irritability, seizures, hallucinations, tachycardia, elevated blood pressure, and loss of consciousness. They have caused significant organ damage as well as overdose deaths. Over the past five years, DEA has identified over 300 new designers drugs from eight different structural classes, the vast majority of which are manufactured in China.

DEA has many enforcement and regulatory tools at its disposal to address the threat posed by ever-changing synthetic drug markets. The illicit manufacturing and distribution of these drugs are prosecuted and controlled under the Controlled Substance Act, the Controlled Substance Analogue Act, and the Import and Controlled Substance Import and Export Act.  

Parents and children are encouraged to educate themselves about the dangers of drugs by visiting DEA’s interactive websites at www.JustThinkTwice.com, www.GetSmartAboutDrugs.com and www.dea.gov.

More information about synthetic designer drugs can be found on the Drug Fact Sheets at http://www.deadiversion.usdoj.gov/drug_chem_info/index.html  
B-roll from Project Synergy Phase II is available at: http://dvidshub.net/r/ff5tjb
Previous B-roll from Project Synergy Phase I (June 2013) is available at: http://www.dvidshub.net/video/294719/cbp-dea-project-synergy-b-roll#.U2pFq3b6-So


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