SACRAMENTO (CN) - More than 150 people have been arrested in 16 states in a 15-month nationwide investigation of the synthetic drug industry, federal officials said.
Agents with Project Synergy III - a joint effort involving the Drug Enforcement Administration, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Homeland Security, and local and state agencies - have seized resulted thousands of kilos of synthetic drugs, more than $15 million in cash, and dozens of weapons, prosecutors said as indictments were unsealed.
Synthetic drugs, known by names such as K2 and Spice, are designed to mimic drugs such as marijuana and cocaine, and are often sold in legal retail outlets as herbal incense, potpourri, bath salts or jewelry cleaner. They can cause paranoia and schizophrenic-type symptoms and have been blamed for numerous murders, some of them grisly and bizarre.
"The availability and illicit marketing of synthetic drugs creates the impression that they are safe and legal, when in fact they are neither," ICE Director Sarah Saldaña said in a statement.
The DEA has identified more than 400 new designer drugs in the United States, most of which are made in China and sold on the Internet and in retail outlets such as smoke shops, gas station convenience stores and bodegas.
Substances identified as synthetic cannabinoids by federal, state and local forensic laboratories increased from 23 reports in 2009 to more than 37,000 reports in 2014, according to the National Forensic Laboratory Information System.
"ICE is committed to working with our law enforcement partners to stop the flow of these highly dangerous drugs into our country," Saldaña said. "At the same time, we are equally concerned about getting the word out - especially to young people - about the dangers, and potentially deadly consequences, of using these substances."
Project Synergy III targeted wholesalers, money launderers and other criminal facilitators in the synthetic designer drug industry. It also revealed that millions of dollars in U.S. synthetic drug proceeds flow to countries of concern in the Middle East, the DEA said.
U.S. Attorney Benjamin Wagner, in unsealing an indictment accusing four men in California or running a synthetic drug distribution ring, said the drugs are "usually manufactured in unsupervised factories in China, are not tested for human consumption, and have led to psychotic episodes, seizures and deaths, even in small quantities."
"Stores should not sell them, and young people should not play Russian roulette by consuming them," Wagner said.
Indicted in Fresno Federal Court were Eddie Habash, 52, of Hawthorne; Zaid Elodat, 28, of Gardena; and Bakersfield residents Ramsey Farraj, 48, and Mike Akroush, 48.
In a separate case in the same court, 13 men were indicted on Oct. 15 on charges of running and abetting a meth ring. Fresno resident Olegario Trujillo, 29, led a large-scale drug trafficking organization that distributed methamphetamine, cocaine and heroin in California and Washington, according to the indictments.
The other men are charged with delivering the drugs and distributing the money.
In that case, officials seized 14 kilograms of methamphetamine, 2 kilograms of cocaine and 1 kilogram of heroin.
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