Less than a month after President Obama banned the sale, production, and possession of synthetic drugs known as bath salts, the Drug Enforcement Agency announced today that it has made 90 arrests in a nationwide “synthetic drug takedown.”
Law enforcement agents also seized $36 million in cash and 19 million packets of synthetic drugs, including bath salts (a powder hallucinogen) and spice (also known as fake marijuana), the agency said. The DEA collaborated with Immigration and Customs Enforcement and several other federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies in a project called Operation Log Jam.
“This enforcement action has disrupted the entire illegal industry, from manufacturers to retailers,” said DEA administrator Michele Leonhart.
The largest number of arrests were in Albuquerque, but the most significant synthetic drug activity was in Tampa, DEA spokeswoman Barbara Cerrano told ABCNews.com. Part of Operation Log Jam included serving search warrants to gather evidence in addition to the arrests, she said.
“The criminal organizations behind the importation, distribution and selling of these synthetic drugs have scant regard for human life in their reckless pursuit of illicit profits,” said James Chaparro, the Acting Director of ICE’s Office of Homeland Security Investigations. “ICE is committed to working with our law enforcement partners to bring this industry to its knees.”
The synthetic marijuana starts as a powder that’s illegally imported from overseas and is mixed with acetone and plant material before it can be used and abused, Cerrano said.
The bath salts are also imported as a powder and sold at head shops under names like “Ivory Wave” and “Bliss,” according to the DEA.
The difference between a synthetic drug and any other drug is that a synthetic drug is made in a lab, said Scott Basinger, chairman of the Substance Abuse Committee at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. Although people have used natural drugs by smoking marijuana or chewing cocaine leaves going back thousands of years, synthetic drugs are only 30 or 40 years old, and they probably started with LSD, he said.
“There’s a certain sense that new synthetics that are common on the market are more dangerous because we don’t have the background on how to handle them,” Basinger told ABCNews.com. “For a cocaine overdose or an opioid overdose, we know exactly what to do with them in the ER.”
The drugs have been linked to bizarre behavior including an instance in which a Texas man allegedly attacked, killed and then ate his friend’s dog while high on synthetic marijuana.
Sasha McLean, who heads a school for adolescents recovering from substance abuse, told ABCNews.com there’s been more synthetic drug use in the last two years where she lives in Houston, even among the homeless population. She said she’s seen firsthand what bath salts can do to teens and adults and called it “horribly dangerous.”
“It literally looked like he’d lost his mind,” she said of a 16-year-old who suffered from auditory and visual hallucinations. “He was yelling and screaming at things that didn’t exist, and it was very, very scary.”
ABC News’ Jason Ryan contributed reporting.