HOUSTON (CN) — Federal agents seized 9.5 tons of synthetic marijuana and arrested 12 members of a Houston-area ring, including a University of Houston professor, a task force announced Tuesday in unsealing an indictment.
At a news conference in his office on the 23rd floor of a downtown skyscraper, U.S. Attorney Kenneth Magidson said 12 defendants are in federal custody, two others, from California and Virginia, will turn themselves in, and another two were international fugitives.
After reporters passed through metal detectors, a Department of Justice spokeswoman handed them black folders that contained the 13-count indictment, large color photos of the two fugitives, a National Institute of Drug Abuse fact sheet about synthetic cannabinoids and a CD marked “press materials,” the slick production disconcerting for some reporters not used to being wooed by law enforcement.
Federal prosecutors stacked a combination of drug possession and conspiracy charges against the defendants. Magidson said the government will ask for a $35 million judgment in court, based on the amount of drugs seized.
“Every count in this indictment that was returned on April 28 is a 20-year count maximum, except for one, which is the illegal money transmitting business that was being operated and aided by one of the defendants who in fact was a University of Houston finance professor,” Magidson said.
Omar Al Nasser is an assistant professor of finance at the University of Houston-Victoria, according to his Linkedin page. His only charge is for money transmitting, which carries a maximum penalty of 5 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
A University of Houston spokesman did not return a phone call asking if the school fired Al Nasser, who teaches at its Victoria campus, 120 miles southwest of Houston.
Prosecutors say the men, whose names are of South Asian and Middle Eastern origin, smuggled the synthetic marijuana from China.
If convicted, all but Al Nasser face more than $1 million in fines.
Magidson was flanked by officers from the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Internal Revenue Service, Houston Police Department and the U.S. Postal Service, which worked together for four years to bust the ring.
A poster board displayed eye-catching packages of synthetic marijuana, all mislabeled as potpourri, among them “California Kronic” and “Mad Monkey.”
Synthetic marijuana is made by spraying synthetic cannabinoids on dried plant material. The spray usually comes from industrial labs in China. Though every state has banned the chemicals, producers have stayed a step ahead of lawmakers by tweaking the chemicals slightly to create new and technically legal versions.
Congress designated synthetic marijuana a Schedule I drug in 2012 to try to pin down resourceful dealers and chemists who alter the recipes, Magidson said.
Texas and federal law define Schedule I drugs as highly addictive with no accepted medical use.
DEA agent Joe Arabit described how the chemicals are mixed with the plants. “The raw chemicals are brought into the country and they are placed in a cement mixer with some plant material, typically damiana leaf, which has its origins in Central America.”
Arabit held up a $20 bag, his well-groomed mustache complimenting his navy-blue tailored suit.
“Most of these packages say ‘Not for human consumption;’ some of them even say ‘DEA compliant,’ which they are not,” he said, adding that the cartoon-heavy packaging is obviously “marketing to youth.”
Because synthetic marijuana is relatively cheap and powerful and does not show up on drug tests it’s become a popular alternative to the genuine article
Synthetic marijuana has affected hospitals around the country, Magidson said, filling emergency rooms with people suffering from kidney damage, racing hearts, suicidal thoughts and psychotic episodes.
Staff at Ben Taub Hospital in Houston, the only one in the city that offers 24/7 emergency psychiatric care, report they are “getting at least 15 admissions per day related to overdoses of synthetic cannabinoids,” Arabit said.
The Harris County District Attorney’s Office has filed eights lawsuits against alleged synthetic marijuana dealers in the past two years, seeking restraining orders to stop the sales, Courthouse News data show.
Magidson said the latest bust shows police and prosecutors are abandoning a small-fry approach to enforcement.
“We’re not just doing one-defendant buys,” Magidson said. “We’re doing organizational cases that are going to have a significant impact on our community … to ensure this stuff gets off the street.”
All of the defendants except the professor were indicted on some combination of these charges: conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute a controlled substance, aiding and abetting smuggling of goods to the United States, conspiracy to commit money laundering, possession of a controlled substance with intent to distribute, conspiracy to commit mail fraud, and aiding and abetting possession with intent to distribute a controlled substance.
Here are the defendants in custody: Salem Fahed Tannous, 55, of Houston; Muhammad Shariq Siddiqi, 45; Ayisha Khurram, 40; Sayed Ali, 40, all of Sugar Land; Omar Maher Al Nasser, 36; Ali Shaker Tafesh, 35, both of Houston; Hazim Hisham Qadus, of South Houston; Khalil Munier Khalil, 40; Nagy Mahmoud Ali, 59; Mohammed Rafat Taha, 27, all of Houston; and Abdalnour Izz, 31, of Missouri City;
Magidson said Frank Muratalla, 23, of Hawthorne, Calif., and Khader Fahed Tanous, 49, of Stephens City, Va., agreed to turn themselves in.
The prosecutor said Ziad Mahmoud Alsalameh, 56, and Aqil Khader, 33, are international fugitives, but would not say what countries are involved.
Two of the defendants are from Pakistan, one each from Jordan and Israel, and a fourth is believed to be from India, prosecutors said.
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