"Millions and millions" of dollars are flowing to terror groups in the Middle East from the sale of synthetic drugs like " K-2" and "Spice" in the United States, according to Drug Enforcement Administration officials.
"The bad guys need money to operate, to buy explosives, to buy weapons, to come after this country, and these designer drugs are generating millions and millions of dollars," Derek Maltz of DEA said.
DEA and its partner law enforcement agencies today announced a "global takedown" of synthetic drug dealers and retailers. More than $15 million in cash and assets were seized, and more than 150 arrest warrants were executed in 35 states, 49 cities and five countries in an operation called "Project Synergy."
More than 1,550 kilograms of synthetic drugs coming into the country were seized by DEA and Customs and Border Protection, officials say. The operation uncovered the massive flow of drug-related proceeds back to countries in the Middle East and elsewhere.
Most of the synthetic drugs were imported from Asia, specifically China and India, DEA officials said.
Marketed to teens and young adults as herbal incense or bath salts, and under names like "The Joker," "Scooby Doo," "Blaze," and "Red X Dawn," the synthetic drugs can produce a powerful, and sometimes deadly high. Officials say that the smokable, herbal blends are sold as legal, and provide a marijuana-like buzz, but in many cases, the chemicals impregnated in the blends can be more potent and dangerous than pot.
"They cause acute psychosis, which causes people to do incredible harm to themselves and to others and there's been plenty of reports of what's happening from young men and women committing suicide, to people running into the street, to people attacking other people saying they see things…it's a horrible drug," James Capra, DEA chief of operations said. "You see, these organizations do not care about life. They don't care about liberty. They don't care about the rule of law. What they care about is lining their pockets with cash on the backs of our young people."
Capra pointed to recent medical statistics to show the damage synthetic drugs can cause. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) reported 11,406 emergency department visits involving a synthetic cannabinoid product during 2010. Just a year later, in 2011, emergency room visits involving the same product had increased 2.5 times to 28,531.
And the synthetic drug dealers have often been able to stay one step ahead of law enforcement by changing chemical formulations to keep their drug legal.
"As soon as we make these things illegal, criminal organizations will go back and change one molecule... one molecule and it changes the entire drug. It changes the whole structure of the drug, so the drug becomes legal and we're at it again," Capra said. "And that's the dynamic of what we're faced with."
Officials today declined to release the identities or locations of the suspects in the far-flung case, saying the investigation is still ongoing.
"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 Lembke of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. "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."