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Press Release

Operation Synergy Results In 18 Arrested For Synthetic Cannabinoid Distribution Operations In Austin And San Antonio

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

Federal, state and local authorities have arrested 18 individuals, including the operator of three locations of Kash Tobacco & Novelties in Austin as well as the owner of the Best Foods #2 convenience store and Hang Ten Smoke Shop in San Antonio, for their roles in synthetic cannabinoid distribution operations announced United States Attorney Robert Pitman, Drug Enforcement Administration Special Agent in Charge Javier Pena, Houston Division, and Federal Bureau of Investigation Special Agent in Charge Armando Fernandez, San Antonio Division.  In addition to the arrests, authorities in the Western District of Texas have seized thousands of packages containing synthetic marijuana, cash, and an assortment of materials used to manufacture synthetic cannabinoids.

U.S. Attorney Pitman noted that these arrests based on federal charges represent a major step by federal, state and local law enforcement agencies to address the emerging problem of designer drugs in our communities before it becomes a significant law enforcement and public health hazard as it has become in other communities.  “Let me be clear about this.  This is not marijuana.  These are chemical substances that are, to the user, completely unknown and that pose potentially serious health risks.  There have been reports in our own community of people, especially young people, who have had potentially serious health effects from their use,” stated U.S. Attorney Pitman.  He added, “To the owners and operators of convenience stores and smoke shops who sell illegal designer drugs, we are here to tell you that this is just the beginning of our effort to enforce the law with respect to the sale of these potentially dangerous substances.  To people in the community who think that designer drugs are a safe and legal option, we hope that this will provoke an understanding not just that they are illegal, but that you are playing a game of Russian roulette when you put these unregulated and unknown chemicals into your body.”

In Austin, a five-count federal grand jury indictment, returned on June 18, 2013, and unsealed today, charges six Austin area residents with one count of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute synthetic cannabinoids.  Those six include Austin residents 45-year-old Zikar R. Ali, operator of three Kash Tobacco & Novelties in Austin; 43-year-old Mehdi Rahim Ali; 41-year-old Karim Rahim Ali ; 36-year-old Syed Ali; and; as well as Round Rock residents 40-year-old Aziz Velani and 20-year-old Azeem Choudhary.  In addition, Mehdi Ali, Karim Ali, Syed Ali and Zikar Ali each face two counts of possession with intent to distribute synthetic cannabinoids while Velani and Choudhary each face one count of possession with intent to distribute synthetic cannabinoids.

“Today, the Drug Enforcement Administration and its counterparts caused a significant blow to those who allegedly distribute, operate or manufacture ‘synthetic’ or ‘designer drugs’,” said DEA Special Agent in Charge Javier Peña.  “These illegal, dangerous and deadly concoctions are designed, marketed and sold to our youth under catchy names and colorful packaging; all in an effort to outwit the law.  Today’s operation should put would-be traffickers on alert that DEA and its counterparts will not tolerate any type of illegal controlled substances to be distributed in our communities,” SAC Peña added.

In San Antonio, a criminal complaint was filed today against 19 individuals--12 of whom were arrested today-- charging them with one count of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute synthetic cannabinoids.  A list of the defendants is attached.  According to the complaint, the defendants are responsible for the production and distribution of synthetic marijuana and bath salts in San Antonio, Houston, Austin, Dallas and Laredo as well as Tulsa and Oklahoma City, OK. 

“These arrests demonstrate the FBI’s steadfast commitment to protecting the community by working long-term, joint investigations aimed at dismantling criminal organizations.  The drug targeted during these investigations, synthetic marijuana, is of particular concern to the FBI and our law enforcement partners since it is specifically designed and marketed to deceive the user of its lethality, and is often targeted at those who are most vulnerable in our society; young adults, teenagers and children,” stated Federal Bureau of Investigation Special Agent in Charge Armando Fernandez, San Antonio Division.

Synthetic cannabinoids, also known as synthetic marijuana, “Spice,” “K2,” or “Kush,” comprise a large family of chemically unrelated structures functionally similar to THC, the primary psychoactive ingredient in organic marijuana.  When ingested, synthetic cannabinoids produce psychoactive effects that are similar to the effects of THC, but often with pronounced and dangerous side-effects.

Synthetic cannabinoid products consist of organic plant matter that is sprayed with a mixture of acetone and synthetic cannabinoid chemical compounds.  These chemicals are unregulated, often produced in China, and imported to the United States where they are then applied to organic plant matter to render them ingestible by smoking.  Generally, the product is packaged in foil baggies which falsely state that the product is “herbal incense” and “not for human consumption” in an attempt to avoid prosecution.   The product may be sold in brick and mortar “smoke shops,” convenience stores, adult book stores, as well as, over the Internet.  Synthetic cannabinoid products are marketed under many different brand names, including those mentioned above, as well as, “Scooby Snax,” “Paradise,” “Mad Monkey,” “Sexy Monkey,” and “Devil Eye,”    

These are chemical substances that are, to the user, completely unknown and that pose potentially serious health risks.  For example, from January 1, 2010 through February 28, 2013, the Texas Poison Center Network reported receiving 1,627 calls about exposure to synthetic cannabinoids and that some individuals exposed experienced symptoms to include agitation, tachycardia, elevated blood pressure, vomiting, hallucinations and confusion. 

Upon conviction, the defendants face up to 20 years in federal prison and a maximum $250,000 fine per count. An indictment or a criminal complaint is merely a charge and should not be considered as evidence of guilt.  The defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty in a court of law.

These investigations resulted from the efforts of the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Federal Bureau of Investigation together with the Internal Revenue Service-Criminal Investigation, Immigration and Customs Enforcement - Homeland Security Investigations, U.S. Border Patrol, Austin, San Antonio and New Braunfels Police Departments, the Texas Department of Public Safety, Texas Attorney General’s Office, Travis County District Attorney’s Office, Travis County Sheriff’s Office, Williamson County Sheriff’s Office, Williamson County Constables Office-Precinct 2, Bastrop County Sheriff’s Office, Live Oak Police Department and the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission. ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations also assisted with today’s arrests.  Assistant United States Attorney’s Mark Marshall and Chris Peele are prosecuting the Austin case; Mark Roomberg and Jay Hulings, the San Antonio case.

Updated December 15, 2014