Synthetic Drug Dealers With Central Valley Connection Arrested As Part Of Nationwide Enforcement Operation
FRESNO, Calif. — Douglas Jason Way, 41, of Evanston, Ill.; Timothy Ortiz, 43, of Waukegan, Ill.; and Natalie Middleton, 28, of Clovis, Calif., have been arrested as part of a nationwide law enforcement effort to combat the threat of synthetic drugs. The arrests were announced by United States Attorney Benjamin B. Wagner; Jeffrey J. Fitzpatrick, Special Agent in Charge of the San Francisco Field Division of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration; Jose Martinez, Special Agent in Charge of the Oakland Field Office, Internal Revenue Service, Criminal Investigation; and Clark E. Settles, Special Agent in Charge of the San Francisco Field Office of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations.
The defendants were charged in a federal criminal complaint with conspiracy to traffic synthetic cannabinoids, commonly known as “spice,” “K2,” or “herbal incense.” They were also charged with causing the introduction of misbranded drugs into interstate commerce. Middleton, individually, was charged with money laundering the proceeds of drug trafficking. According to the complaint, the conspiracy involved the manufacture and distribution of at least 11 tons of smokable synthetic cannabinoids that contained the synthetic drugs AM-2201, JWH-018, and XLR11 to smoke shops and retail outlets throughout the United States and generated in excess of $20 million in illicit income. Manufactured by companies called Zencense and Zenbio, the drugs were processed in warehouses in Millbrae and Stockton, Calif. and marketed under the brand names of Bizarro, Posh, Sonic Zero, Headhunter, Neutronium, and Orgazmo. They were distributed to The Stuffed Pipe smoke shops in Central Valley, as well as to other retail establishments in 47 other states.
Public health and law enforcement agencies have seen the emergence of synthetic drug use. State and local public health departments note that synthetic cannabinoids can cause serious adverse health effects, including agitation, anxiety, nausea, vomiting, tachycardia, elevated blood pressure, tremor, seizures, hallucinations, and paranoid behavior. According to the American Association of Poison Control Centers, poison centers throughout the United States received 5,230 calls about exposures to these drugs in 2012 and 2,656 calls about exposures in 2013. Synthetic cannabinoids are not regulated as drugs for human consumption, and are often marketed as “legal” substances and sometimes labeled as “herbal incense” or “potpourri.” To address this emerging challenge, President Obama signed the Synthetic Drug Abuse Prevention Act into law in 2012, classifying 26 types of synthetic cannabinoids, including AM-2201, as Schedule I drugs under the Controlled Substance Act. DEA placed JWH-018 in Schedule I in 2011 and placed XLR11 in Schedule I last year.
This case was the product of an Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force (OCDETF) investigation by the DEA, IRS, and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), with assistance from the Food and Drug Administration and the Fresno County Sheriff’s Department. The OCDETF program was established in 1982 to mount a comprehensive attack against organized drug traffickers. Today, OCDETF is the centerpiece of the United States Attorney General’s drug strategy to reduce the availability of drugs by disrupting and dismantling major drug trafficking organizations and money laundering organizations and related criminal enterprises. This OCDETF investigation was also part of a nationwide law enforcement effort coordinated by the DEA’s Special Operations Division.
This enforcement action called Project Synergy began January 2014 and culminated this morning in 29 states. Project Synergy involves more than 45 DEA offices serving nearly 200 search warrants. As of today, more than 150 individuals have been arrested and federal, state and local law enforcement authorities have seized hundreds of thousands of individually packaged, ready-to-sell synthetic drugs as well as hundreds of kilograms of raw synthetic products to make thousands more. Additionally, more than $20 million in cash and assets were seized. These numbers are expected to grow as investigations continue.
The three Eastern District of California defendants were arrested in other districts. They will make their initial in the district where they were arrested, and a court date in the Eastern District of California has not yet been set.
If convicted of the drug charges, Way, Ortiz, and Middleton face a maximum statutory penalty of 20 years in prison and a $1 million fine. The FDA mislabeling charge carries a maximum statutory penalty of three years in prison and a fine of $10,000. Middleton also faces a maximum statutory penalty of 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine if convicted of the money laundering charge. Any sentence, however, would be determined at the discretion of the court after consideration of any applicable statutory factors and the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, which take into account a number of variables. The charges are only allegations; the defendants are presumed innocent until and unless proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
Assistant United States Attorney Karen A. Escobar is prosecuting the case, and Assistant United States Attorney Heather Mardel Jones is handling the forfeiture of assets.