DEA busts ‘bath salts’ ring

A covert Houston-area operation was at the center of a designer drug bust that resulted in the arrests of 90 people nationwide and the seizure of millions of packets of illegal synthetic “bath salts.”

Javier Peña, special agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Agency Houston Division, says more arrests are likely. Photo: Brett Coomer / © 2012 Houston Chronicle

Drug Enforcement Administration agents announced Thursday that they raided a factory and warehouse in Rosenberg, where the drugs allegedly were manufactured and packaged for distribution here and in other parts of the United States.

“This was an actual manufacturer and distribution lab that was supplying Houston and the rest of the country,” DEA Houston Division chief Javier Pena said. “This is major.”

More than $36 million also was confiscated across 109 cities in the United States as part of the production and sale of what’s often marketed as bath salts, spice, incense, or plant food, according to the DEA.

Brightly colored, artistically designed packages of the drugs carried names like Mystic, Impact and Kush, Mind Wave and TKO.

In the warehouse, the drugs were organized into large plastic tubs that lined wall shelving, according to photos provided by DEA.

Agents searched as many as 10 addresses locally, including smoke shops, but court records remain sealed.

The investigation continues, and more arrests are expected locally, Pena said.

He would not say who is believed to be behind the operation, other than to say, “white guys from Houston were running it; very complex, sophisticated.”

The raids came as part of the first national sweep against the drug that swept onto the U.S. scene only a few years ago and just weeks ago was made illegal.

In 2009, the DEA had two instances of so-called “bath salts” turning up in the United States, but by 2011, there were more than 900 in 34 states, according to an agency report.

Producing the drug requires ingredients that take on a look similar to marijuana but when ready for use take on the look of bath crystals.

“It is a deadly drug that has an innocuous name and can mislead individuals into trying this type of drug that attacks the central nervous system and causes delusions and hallucinations,” said Mike Vigil, a retired chief of international operations for the DEA.

Vigil said the drug amounts to being a poor man’s cocaine or methamphetamine.

“The stuff can be swallowed, snorted, smoked or injected,” Vigil said.

R. Gil Kerlikowske, head of the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy, cautioned law enforcement officers that a law recently signed by President Barack Obama likely will curb the illicit sales of bath salts and other drugs but that preventing use of the drugs is the most “cost-effective, common sense” approach.

“Synthetic drugs like ‘bath salts’ … are a serious threat to health and safety,” Kerlikowske said in late June. “I urge families to take time today to learn what these drugs are and discuss the harms that all drugs pose to young people in America.”

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