ST. LOUIS • By outward appearances, it was just an average office area, with multiple computers. But St. Charles County Sheriff’s deputies and federal drug agents who cracked down on the undisclosed location along Scherer Parkway in St. Charles knew it was a mask for something much bigger.
Just how big surprised even them.
Their joint effort had uncovered one of the biggest distributors of synthetic drugs in the Midwest. Investigators are still learning how big, Sheriff Tom Neer said Thursday.
He said the computers provided a revealing window to a massive internet operation that peddled the illicit products to sellers.
Authorities also recently found two storage areas linked to the distributor: one, in St. Charles, with more than $1.5 million worth of illegal product, and the other, just outside of Overland, with more than $5 million worth. Officials believe there are others yet undiscovered.
With the conclusion this week of a nationwide effort to dismantle synthetic drug distributors, Neer shared details of the raid with a reporter. The investigation continues, but Neer expects to present evidence to prosecutors soon.
“Operation Log Jam,” which played out Wednesday in more than 100 cities, was a first-ever, nationwide effort to wipe out an industry responsible for drugs that are marketed as bath salts or incense but which mimic the effects of cocaine, marijuana, LSD and methamphetamine.
Common names of the products include K2, Spice, Ivory Wave or Cloud 9, officials said.
Across the country, state and federal authorities arrested more than 90 people and seized more than 5 million packets of synthetic drugs, raw material to produce 13.6 million more and $36 million in cash.
In the St. Louis region, officials on Wednesday confiscated more than 123,000 packets worth about $4.6 million, nearly 7,000 pounds of raw material and more than $85,000. Illicit business was brought to a halt at more than 25 locations — mostly convenience stores, gas stations and head shops. More than a half dozen arrests were made and more are expected.
“Anyone who distributes synthetic drugs is a narcotics trafficker, plain and simple,” James Shroba, acting special agent in charge of the DEA’s St. Louis Division, said at a news conference Thursday in St. Louis revealing the results. “We plan to put them out of business.”
Neer said his county began its effort about eight months ago, carrying out raids at places such as Hook-Up, Retro-Active, and South 94 Bait, Tackle and Smoke Shop.
Several months of investigation led to the major distributor in St. Charles, where search warrants were served a few weeks ago.
In St. Clair County, six search warrants were prepared Wednesday by State’s Attorney Brendan Kelly’s office as part of the sweep. But the office had already begun its own initiative to target convenience store sales in April.
“I am encouraged that the federal government has now joined the fight in a big way, because people pumping poison into our community must be confronted,” Kelly said in a prepared statement.
Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan started a program this year called “Operation Smoked Out,” which as of this spring resulted in the statewide seizure of 13,101 packets of drugs with an estimated value of more than $336,000.
Use of the synthetic drugs has risen sharply in recent years. Nationwide, calls to poison control centers about synthetic marijuana totaled 6,890 last year, up from 2,915 in 2010. Calls related to “bath salts,” drugs that mimic cocaine and methamphetamine, soared to 6,072 in 2011 from 303 the year before. In the past year, emergency room visits due to synthetic marijuana use went up 6,000 percent, Shroba said.
The problem cuts across urban and rural areas, from coast to coast, officials said.
Several deaths have been attributed to use of the synthetic drugs, and many St. Louis-area communities have banned their sale.
In recent years, Illinois and other states banned specific formulations only to have drugmakers come up with slightly different ones. An Illinois law that took effect Jan. 1 bans all chemicals that are structural derivatives.
Missouri lawmakers also have made so-called “bath salts” and synthetic marijuana illegal.
Scott Collier, diversion program manager for the DEA’s St. Louis division, said many businesses have tried to evade the law with labels declaring the products not for human consumption. That spared them from prosecution until recent changes in federal laws.
Some retailers, he said, have convinced themselves that what they are doing is legal.
Neer said distributors and sellers know the products are harmful yet hawk them to impressionable teenagers as legal and safe.
He said, “Anyone with the common sense of a manhole cover knows you don’t pay $65 for three grams of something to make your shoes smell good or your bath water bubble.”