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June 26, 2013
Contact: DEA Public Affairs
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Updated Results From DEA’s Largest-Ever Global Synthetic Drug Takedown Yesterday

Nationwide enforcement actions targeted dangerous new and emerging class of chemicals from overseas

JUNE 27 (WASHINGTON) – Yesterday the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and its law enforcement partners announced enforcement operations in 35 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 uncovered the massive flow of drug-related proceeds back to countries in the Middle East and elsewhere.

Since Project Synergy began December 1 of 2012, more than 227 arrests were made and 416 search warrants served in 35 states, 49 cities and five countries, along with more than $51 million in cash and assets seized.   Altogether, 9,445 kilograms of individually packaged, ready-to-sell synthetic drugs, 299 kilograms of cathinone drugs (the falsely labeled “bath salts”), 1,252 kilograms of cannabinoid drugs (used to make the so-called “fake pot” or herbal incense products), and 783 kilograms of treated plant material were seized.

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, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), FBI, and IRS.  In addition, law enforcement in Australia, Barbados, Panama, 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.”

“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 Lembke, HSI Deputy 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 Administration (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 cathinones (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 cathinone (“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 Administration (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 Act (CSA), the Controlled Substance Analogue Enforcement Act of 1986 (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 cathinones (the so-called “bath salts” with names like Ivory Wave, etc.) and synthetic cannabinoids (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.

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