The Drug Enforcement Administration launched a nationwide strike against synthetic drugs this week, marking the first major federal crackdown on the easily available drugs.
Operation Log Jam netted more than 90 importers, middlemen and retailers of “designer drugs,” which include synthetic marijuana and a substance known as “bath salts.”
Working with Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, the IRS, U.S. Customs and Border Protection and other agencies, they seized about $36 million in drug money and almost five million packets of drugs in 31 states. Much of the loot came from gas stations, convenience stores and head shops, where the drugs are widely available and hugely profitable.
“Together, we’re sending a clear message to those who profit from the sale of these dangerous substances,” said DEA administrator Michele M. Leonhart in a prepared statement. “You are nothing more than a drug trafficker, and we will bring you to justice.”
The drugs, which first appeared in the U.S. three years ago but were not common until the end of 2010, have posed a huge challenge to the DEA. They do not show up on urine, blood and other standard drug tests, and until this year were too new to be included in surveys tracking drug-use trends. The many types of cannabinoids and cathinones, the broad categories the drugs fall into, were not covered by existing substance laws.
The most common cannabinoids were added to the list of Schedule I controlled substances in March 2011, while the main ingredients of the misleadingly named stimulant “bath salts” were banned this month.
The raids ranged from small shops in upstate New York to larger packaging facilities in Southern California. One gas station manager protested that the drugs should not be made illegal, saying that almost 50 percent of its income came from selling the illegal drugs, according to the DEA.
“What’s troubling is, they’re marketing to young people, and the young people have an outlet at these smoke shops, and these retail outlets, to go and purchase this,” Ms. Leonhart said. “And we have focused [in this operation] on those communities that have been impacted the most.”
“Designer drugs” are a broad category of man-made narcotics that are specifically designed to bypass existing laws. Synthetic marijuana and bath salts are imported from China and South Asia in bulk quantities, and then cut with a variety of street-level substances found in many drugs in this country.
The two drugs were instantly popular for their cheap prices and easy availability, with related calls to poison control centers rising from 300 in 2010 to 6,000 in 2011.
Often packaged as incense, cosmetic bath salts or plant food, manufacturers skirted illegality by clearly labeling their product “not for human consumption.” Colorful websites selling the drugs were careful to include a disclaimer that no one under 18 should be viewing the site, but had no way to verify the customer’s age.
“There is a lot of word of mouth going around on the internet,” DEA spokeswoman Barabara Carreno told The Washington Times earlier this month. “It’s making people curious.”
Despite similarities in their marketing, the two drugs have very different effects. Synthetic marijuana, known as “K2” or “spice,” contains five chemicals in the cannabinoid family. Usually smoked, it has effects similar to marijuana, including relaxation and mood alteration. It is the second-most popular drug among high school students after marijuana.
Bath salts contain a cocktail of three chemicals, and is taken orally or by injection. One expert described it as having the same effect as taking amphetamines and cocaine at the same time, leaving users with an intense high that causes them to feel violent and paranoid. One bath-salts user in Louisiana committed suicide because he thought police were after him. Another user was found wandering the West Virginia woods in women’s underwear after he stabbed a goat.
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