June 26, 2013
Contact: Casey Rettig
Phone Number: (415) 436-7900
DEA Announces Largest-Ever Synthetic Drug Takedown
Nationwide enforcement actions target dangerous new and emerging class of chemicals from overseas
FRESNO, Calif. - The Drug Enforcement (DEA) and its law enforcement partners today announced enforcement operations in 33 states targeting the upper echelon of dangerous designer synthetic drug trafficking organizations that have operated without regard for the law or public safety.
These series of enforcement actions included retailers, wholesalers, and manufacturers. In addition, these investigations have uncovered the massive flow of drug-related proceeds back to countries in the Middle East and elsewhere.
Locally, federal search warrants were served in the Bakersfield and Fresno areas. As a result of these searches law enforcement seized nearly $6 million, hundreds of packages believed to contain synthetic cannabinoids, and a small amount of suspected cocaine. These investigations are ongoing at this time.
Since Project Synergy began in December of 2012, more than 75 arrests have been made and nearly $15 million in cash and assets have been seized-all leading up to today’s global takedown. Today, law enforcement executed over 150 arrest warrants and nearly 375 search warrants in 35 states, 49 cities, and five countries. During the past three days prior to today, over 550 kilograms of synthetic drugs were seized in a joint operation with Customs and Border Protection aimed at international shipments of synthetic drugs at express consignment facilities. Since February, more than 1,000 kilograms of synthetic drugs have been seized at express consignment facilities.
Project Synergy was coordinated by DEA’s Special Operations Division, working with the DEA Office of Diversion Control, and included cases led by DEA, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, ICE-HSI, FBI, and IRS. In addition, law enforcement in Australia, Barbados, and Canada participated, as well as countless state and local law enforcement members.
“Shutting down businesses that traffic in these drugs and attacking their operations worldwide is a priority for DEA and our law enforcement partners,” said DEA Administrator Michele M. Leonhart. “These designer drugs are destructive, dangerous, and are destroying lives. DEA has been at the forefront of the battle against this trend and is targeting these new and emerging drugs with every scientific, legislative, and investigative tool at our disposal.”
“Synthetic marijuana is a dangerous drug, and its manufacture and distribution will not be tolerated,” stated U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of California Benjamin B. Wagner. “I am proud of our District’s contribution to the nationwide effort against synthetic marijuana.”
“CBP and DEA enjoy a close working relationship that was further enhanced through the collaboration of the National Targeting Center and CBP officers in the field at express consignment hubs during this operation to target, test and detain shipments of synthetic drugs, as well as precursor herbs used to manufacture synthetic marijuana,” said CBP David Murphy, Acting Assistant Commissioner, Field Operations.
“The criminals behind the importation, distribution and selling of these drugs have scant regard for human life in their reckless pursuit of illicit profits,” said Traci Lempke, HSI Acting Assistant Director of Investigative Programs. “For criminal groups seeking to profit through the sale of illegal narcotics, the message is clear: we know how you operate; we know where you hide; and we will not stop until we bring you to justice.”
“The harm inflicted by these designer drugs is matched only by the profit potential for those who sell them,” said Richard Weber, Chief, IRS-Criminal Investigation. “Today’s enforcement actions are the culmination of a multi-year effort in which IRS-CI worked with its domestic and global law enforcement partners to disrupt the flow of money - the lifeblood that allows these multi-million dollar organizations to proliferate.”
“On behalf of the Australian Government, I congratulate the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and U.S. Customs and Border Protection on Project Synergy. This is a significant seizure of synthetic drugs and is a terrific result for our respective law enforcement agencies. Australia remains committed to sharing intelligence with its U.S. partners to combat transnational crime across international borders. This is a win for our collective communities,” Australia’s Acting Ambassador to the United States, Graham Fletcher, said.
Background on designer synthetic drugs -
Designer synthetic drugs are often marketed as herbal incense, bath salts, jewelry cleaner, or plant food, and 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.
Smokable herbal blends marketed as being “legal” and providing a marijuana-like high have become increasingly popular, particularly among teens and young adults, because they are easily available and, in many cases, they are more potent and dangerous than marijuana. These products consist of plant material that has been impregnated with dangerous psychoactive compounds that mimic THC, the active ingredient in marijuana. Synthetic cannabinoids are sold at a variety of retail outlets, in head shops and over the Internet. Brands such as “Spice,” “K2,” “Blaze,” and “Red X Dawn” are labeled as incense to mask their intended purpose. In 2012, a report by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services (SAMHSA) reported 11,406 emergency department visits involving a synthetic cannabinoid product during 2010. In a 2013 report, SAMHSA reported the number of emergency department visits in 2011 involving a synthetic cannabinoid product had increased 2.5 times to 28,531. The American Association of Poison Control Centers reported 5,205 calls related to human exposure of synthetic cannabinoids.
For the past several years, there has also been a growing use of, and interest in, synthetic (stimulants/hallucinogens) sold under the guise of “bath salts” or “plant food” Marketed under names such as “Ivory Wave” “Purple Wave” “Vanilla Sky,” or “Bliss” these products are comprised of a class of dangerous substances perceived to mimic cocaine, LSD, MDMA, and/or methamphetamine. Users have reported impaired perception, reduced motor control, disorientation, extreme paranoia, and violent episodes. The long-term physical and psychological effects of use are unknown but potentially severe. The American Association of Poison Control Centers reported 2,656 calls related to synthetic (“bath salts”) exposures in 2012 and overdose deaths have been reported as well.
These products have become increasingly popular, particularly among teens and young adults and those who mistakenly believe they can bypass the drug testing protocols of employers and government agencies to protect public safety. They are sold at a variety of retail outlets, in head shops, and over the Internet. However, they have not been approved by the Food and Drug (FDA) for human consumption or for medical use, and there is no oversight of the manufacturing process.
Controlled Substance Analogue Enforcement Act -
While many of the designer drugs being marketed today that were seized as part of Project Synergy are not specifically prohibited in the Controlled Substances (CSA), the Controlled Substance Analogue Enforcement Act of (AEA) allows many of these drugs to be treated as controlled substances if they are proven to be chemically and/or pharmacologically similar to a Schedule I or Schedule II controlled substance. A number of cases that are part of Project Synergy will be prosecuted federally under this analogue provision, which is being utilized to combat these new and emerging designer drugs.
DEA has used its emergency scheduling authority to combat both synthetic (the so-called “bath salts” with names like Ivory Wave, etc.) and synthetic (the so-called incense products like K2, Spice, etc.), temporarily placing several of these dangerous chemicals into Schedule I of the CSA. Congress has also acted, permanently placing 26 substances into Schedule I of the CSA in 2012.More information about synthetic designer drugs can be found on the Drug Fact Sheets.
B-roll from Project Synergy is available at: http://www.dvidshub.net/video/294719/cbp-dea-project-synergy-b-roll
Photos from Project Synergy can be found here.