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Press Release

Multiple Sentences Imposed in Massive Synthetic Narcotics Distribution Network

For Immediate Release
U.S. Attorney's Office, Southern District of Texas

HOUSTON - The five leaders and eight other co-conspirators have been sentenced for their roles in one of the largest synthetic cannabinoids distribution networks in the United States, announced U.S. Attorney Ryan Patrick. The sentences ranged from 140 months in federal prison for a leader to probation for an hourly wage clerk who sold the drugs. 

The defendants were sentenced for their involvement in the manufacture, possession and distribution of synthetic cannabinoids commonly, but mistakenly, referred to as synthetic marijuana.

Today, U.S. District Judge Gray Miller ordered Khader Fahed Tanous, 52, of Manassas, Virginia, who distributed large amounts of synthetic cannabinoids to Houston area distributors, to 121 months imprisonment. Earlier this week, Judge Miller sentenced Muhammad Shariq Siddiqi, 48, of Sugar Land, to 140 months in prison. Siddiqi was a major manufacturer and distributor in the Houston area.

Also sentenced today was Ayisha Khurram, Siddiqi’s partner in manufacturing and distributing synthetic cannabinoids as was the de facto owner of the Smoke Zone Khalil Munier Khalil, 43, of Spring. The Smoke Zone was the most prolific distribution store front in the country for synthetic cannabinoids. Khalil was sentenced to a 135-month prison term while Khurram received a 95-month term of imprisonment.

Today, Judge Miller further sentenced Sayed Ali, 53, of Sugar Land; Abdalnour Izz, 33, of Houston; Steve Amira, 61, of Richmond; Mohammed Rafat Taha, 29, of Spring; and Frank Muratalla, 25, of Downey, California.

Siddiqi paid Ali to dilute, mix and apply the chemicals he supplied to the plant material. Izz delivered the drugs and collected payments for Tanous. Amira was the owner of Houston Beverage and a synthetic cannabinoids distributor. Ali received a sentence of 50 months, while Izz and Amira were each sentenced to 36 months.  

Muratalla, who worked for out of state manufacturers of synthetic cannabinoids here in Houston, and Taha, a clerk at Smoke Zone, who sold packages of synthetic cannabinoids were both sentenced to four-year-terms of probation.

Also sentenced this week were other distributors and managers involved in the distribution of synthetic cannabinoids in the Houston area. Those included Salem Fahed Tannous, 58, of Houston (Khader Tanous’s brother who collected money for him from synthetic narcotics sales), Ali Tafesh, 37, of Houston, who owned and distributed the drugs from a store named Azell Cell Phones, Hazim Hisham Qadus, 34, a permanent resident alien who resided in Houston and distributed drugs from a store named Moon Mart and Azell Cell Phones and Nagy Ali, 61 of Spring, the manager of Smoke Zone. Tannous was ordered to serve 49 months in prison, while Tafesh, Qadus will both serve sentences of 97 months. Nagy Ali received a 120-month-prison term for his role.

Throughout the three days of hearings and the handing down of these sentences, the court’s repeated theme was its concern that the dangerous drugs these defendants were manufacturing were being marketed and distributed to juveniles.

Siddiqi and Qadus are not U.S. Citizens and are expected to face deportation proceedings following the completion of their prison terms.

Omar Maher Alnasser, a 37-year old resident of Sugar Land and former University of Houston professor, was previously sentenced to 12 months and one day in prison for aiding and abetting an unlicensed money transmitting business.  He had admitted he was paid to wire more than $200,000 in U.S. currency from a bank in the United States to accounts in the country of Jordan.

The dismantling of this organizations and the convictions are the result of a multi-year, multi-agency federal investigation into one of the largest synthetic distribution networks in the nation and operated in the Houston area dubbed “We Can Hear You Now.” 

All 13 defendants sentenced this week were convicted of conspiring to distribute a variety of synthetic cannabinoids, all Schedule I controlled substances.  In committing the offense, several co-conspirators were accused in a scheme to defraud by marketing their products as though they were safe labeled the drugs as “potpourri” or “incense,” with some labels including false information such as “100% legal,” “lab certified” or “not for human consumption,” when in fact these products were dangerous drugs.

There are no standards for making synthetic cannabinoids which contain hazardous chemicals often imported from China that, when smoked or ingested, could have serious (sometimes deadly) side effects. Frequently, as in this case, various “brands” are mixed together in the same cement mixer, so two packets of a brand-named product may have the identical chemicals. Often, the same cement mixers are used for multiple batches of synthetic cannabinoids, so the “final” products may also be contaminated with other drugs or toxic chemicals from previous batches.

The amounts of synthetic cannabinoid in packages may also vary even within the same batches because the product is not mixed uniformly within the cement mixers. Therefore, “hot packages” with a higher concentration of the applied chemical are a common danger. According to the Center for Disease Control, synthetic cannabinoids may cause hallucinations, delusions, psychosis, suicidal thoughts and violent behavior.  The health problems associated with the drug include heart attack, stroke, kidney failure, breathing problems and muscle damage.

The drugs the defendants admitted to having distributed were all Schedule I drugs – substances or chemicals with no currently accepted medical use, have a high potential for abuse, are the most dangerous drugs of all scheduled drugs and have potential for severe psychological or physical dependence. The packaging was also typical of synthetic cannabinoids - contained colorful illustrations that targeted not only drug abusers, but also children and adolescents.

In connection with this case, authorities are still seeking Ziad Mahmoud Alsalameh, 56, of Pearland, and Aqil Khader, 33, of Houston. They are considered fugitives and warrants remain outstanding for their arrests. Anyone with information about their whereabouts are asked to contact DEA at 713-693-3000.

The Drug Enforcement Administration, Houston Police Department, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and IRS – Criminal Investigation conducted the four-year investigation with the assistance of the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, Conroe Police Department, sheriff’s offices in Harris and Polk counties, Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission and the Montgomery County District Attorney’s Office. Assistant U.S. Attorneys John Jocher and Nancy Herrera prosecuted the case.

Updated November 29, 2018

Drug Trafficking