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Project Synergy Targets Synthetic Drugs

Editorial by Edward L. Stanton III on July 20, 2013
The Commercial Appeal

Last month, the Drug Enforcement Administration and its law enforcement partners around the country carried out enforcement operations in 35 states as part of Project Synergy -- a massive investigation targeting dangerous criminal organizations trafficking in synthetic drugs.

In West Tennessee alone, more than 400 federal, state and local law enforcement officials took part in a sweeping take-down of 39 individuals and 34 storefronts, all alleged to be involved in circulating synthetic drugs in our communities. The individuals were charged in federal indictments with various drug and money laundering offenses, and officers served 76 search warrants on residences and businesses in Memphis, Jackson, Humboldt and elsewhere.

Agents throughout West Tennessee seized thousands of pounds of synthetic drugs, more than $1 million and numerous firearms and vehicles.

Project Synergy is the largest-ever coordinated law enforcement strike against designer drugs -- targeting manufacturers, distributors and retailers of more than 250 synthetic drugs being abused every day in the United States and globally.

Make no mistake about it, these people are drug traffickers. We will prosecute those charged to the fullest extent of the law, and will continue to pursue others who are peddling these substances to our young people and others.

Many citizens may not know much about the threat posed by synthetic, "designer" drugs. But the threat is real, and it is growing exponentially.

Synthetic drugs generally fall into two categories: cannabinoids and cathinones. Synthetic cannabinoids are plants that have been impregnated with dangerous psychoactive compounds that mimic THC, the active ingredient in marijuana. Often known by the street names "Spice" or "K2," these substances can cause the hallucinogenic effects associated with marijuana, with the added side effects of seizures and dependency/addiction. Many brands of synthetic cannabinoids are labeled as incense to mask their intended purpose.

Synthetic cathinones, better known as "bath salts" or "plant food," are marketed under names such as "Ivory Wave," "Purple Wave," "Vanilla Sky" or "Bliss." These products are comprised of dangerous substances perceived to mimic cocaine, LSD, MDMA and/or methamphetamine. Abusers experience chest pain, increased blood pressure, agitation, panic attacks, irrational behavior, hallucinations, paranoia, delusions, and even heart attacks and strokes.

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.

Some of these products are snorted, while other substances are laced upon inert plant material and ingested by smoking. Alarmingly, none of these products has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration for human consumption or for medical use, and there is no oversight of the manufacturing process, which often originates in China, India or South America, and is finalized here in the United States.
Nevertheless, these products have become increasingly popular, particularly among teens and young adults, as well as those who mistakenly believe they can bypass the drug testing protocols of employers and government agencies to protect public safety.

The wide availability of these drugs in retail outlets, head shops and on the Internet makes them even more dangerous and deadly. Unfortunately, many people assume that if a substance is unregulated and purchased online or at a convenience store, it must be safe. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Adding to the challenge is the fact that the profit potential for trafficking these drugs is sky-high, exceeding many other dangerous, well-known drugs. Conservative estimates have a kilogram (2.2 pounds) of "spice" (synthetic cannabinoids) profiting $250,000 and a kilogram of "bath salts" (synthetic cathinones) yielding $200,000 in profit.

Many investigations of synthetic drugs have uncovered money flowing to other countries, making this an even more critical challenge for law enforcement. After all, any time drug-related proceeds move globally, it is a major concern.

We will remain vigilant in working with federal, state and local law enforcement partners to fight this emerging threat. Likewise, we will make it a priority to dismantle businesses that claim to sell harmless products like spice and incense, but instead are nefariously marketing toxic designer drugs to the public.
Last month's indictments, arrests and seizures should demonstrate that the manufacturing, distribution and purchase of these highly addictive and potentially lethal substances will not be tolerated.

Individuals, including owners of retail businesses, who are brazen enough to sell this poison, particularly to our most vulnerable and impressionable citizens -- our children and teens -- will be held accountable to the fullest extent of the law.

Edward L. Stanton III is U.S. attorney for the Western District of Tennessee.

Updated March 20, 2015

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