In the eyes of prosecutors, Fawzi Al-Arashi was more than a small time drug dealer.
He was a wholesaler, they say, a dealer who bought his synthetic marijuana in California, repackaged it at an Amherst warehouse and resold it across New York State.
Al-Arashi, 34, of Williamsville, was charged Wednesday after a search of his Ridge Lea Road warehouse turned up 30,000 packets of the drug, federal law enforcement officials said.
“In essence, this was a one-stop shop,” said Dale Kasprzyk, head of the Drug Enforcement Administration office in Buffalo, “not just in the retail area, but the wholesale area as well.”
Kasprzyk said the investigation into Al-Arashi started with phone calls from suspicious parents, many of them with young children hospitalized after using the drug.
On top of that, his office received a report from the DEA office in Los Angeles several months ago that a suspected shipment of synthetic marijuana was headed for Buffalo.
According to court papers, the shipment was delivered to Town Tobacco, Al-Arashi’s store at 3407 Delaware Ave. in the Town of Tonawanda.
“We combined all that information together and began to learn that Mr. Al-Arashi was the owner, operator and manager of the operation,” Kasprzyk said at news conference today.
The operation, he said, turned out to be bigger than Town Tobacco or Al-Arashi’s other store, Welcome, Welcome at 140 Main St. in North Tonawanda.
“This is believed to be the biggest synthetic marijuana seizure in Western New York history by a factor of two,” said U.S. Attorney William J. Hochul Jr.
Investigators said they also seized four of Al-Arashi’s bank accounts, which combined held about $725,000, as well as about $50,000 worth of silver bars and coins found in his Williamsville home.
Al-Arashi is charged with possession and distribution of a controlled substance analogue and made his first court appearance today before U.S. Magistrate Judge H. Kenneth Schroeder.
Hochul said his office has alerted Schroeder to the possibility that the synthetic marijuana sold by Al-Arashi may have caused harm to some of the people who bought it at his two stores.
If there are people who suffered physical harm because of the drug, Al-Arashi could face a more severe penalty when and if he’s convicted and sentenced, Hochul said.
That sentence could be up to life in prison, although a more lenient sentence would be likely under federal sentencing guidelines.
Hochul said police have received reports of young people being hospitalized after using drugs bought at Al-Arashi’s stores.
They include a woman who claims her son spent time in the psychiatric unit at Erie County Medical Center after using synthetic marijuana bought at Town Tobacco, the U.S. attorney said.
Investigators said Al-Arashi sold the synthetic marijuana in bright colored packages with names such as “Pump It,” “Tiger Shack” and California Dreams.”
Al-Arashi’s arrest is the result of an investigation by the DEA and New York State Police, as well as Cheektowaga, Amherst, Town of Tonawanda and Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority police.
Law enforcement officials said their investigation is ongoing and may include additional arrests in the Rochester area.