LAS CRUCES — Federal and local law enforcement officers raided several smoke shops Wednesday in Las Cruces, as well as one business in Sunland Park, as part of a nationwide investigation into the alleged production and distribution of synthetic drugs.
Masked agents from the Drug Enforcement Agency, assisted by LCPD officers, were seen removing several large boxes of evidence from at least three retail locations near the intersection of South Solano Drive and East Idaho Avenue.
Federal agents also raided the Station Recreation smoke shop on 1621 Appaloosa in Sunland Park. DEA officials did not say Wednesday if any raids in southern New Mexico resulted in arrests.
An affidavit filed in support of the search warrants in the U.S. District Court for New Mexico indicates that 14 businesses in Las Cruces, Sunland Park and Alamogordo were targeted for allegedly selling illegal synthetic cannabinoids, commonly known as Spice, and synthetic cathinones, more popularly known as “bath salts.”
Two smoke shops in Silver City, Twisted Illusions and The Smoke Shop, were not raided and neither sells Spice, workers said.
In January, the DEA, joined by other federal and local law enforcement agencies, began investigating the smoke shops, often sending undercover agents to purchase suspected synthetic drugs, according to court documents.
“Each undercover operation has resulted in the seizure of individual-used sized containers containing a plant material that is believed to
have been treated with chemicals or a powdery-like substance,” DEA agent Jeffery S. Castillo wrote in his affidavit.
The raids in southern New Mexico appeared to be part of a coordinated nationwide investigation as the DEA on Wednesday also raided businesses in El Paso, Albuquerque, as well as locations in California, Utah, New York and New Hampshire, according to published reports.
“DEA agents are conducting numerous enforcement operations throughout the region … This is part of a bigger operation,” said Carmen Coutino, a spokeswoman for the DEA office in El Paso.
The search warrant for the businesses in southern New Mexico, signed by U.S. Magistrate Judge Carmen E. Garza, authorized agents to seize written and electronic documents, financial records, suspected synthetic drugs and paraphernalia, as well as security camera recordings.
Witnesses at Somewhere Else Comics Games, one of 10 businesses in Las Cruces targeted by the DEA, said Wednesday that police officers entered the business with guns drawn, announcing they were raiding the establishment.
“They pat-frisked me and my son. It was very scary for us,” said one woman who declined to give her name. She and her 13-year-old son sat inside a vehicle outside the store at 1230 S. Solano Drive.
Authorities also raided Phat Glass, located next door to Somewhere Else Comics and Games, and Smokin Supply, less than a quarter-mile away at 1315 S. Solano Drive.
“They came in, guns drawn, told me to put my hands up and handcuffed me,” said Maurice Portillo, co-owner of Smokin Supply, who was not arrested and subsequently released.
Portillo said the DEA agents “tore” through his shop, turning around security cameras and taking cell phones, business records, as well as glass containers and herbal incense products that are often described as synthetic marijuana because of their chemical composition.
Portillo, a 29-year-old U.S. Army veteran and student at New Mexico State University, said he believed the products he sold were legal, noting that he bought them from a distributor who also provided literature vouching for their legality with DEA drug scheduling provisions.
“I don’t do any illegal business out here. There’s no history of anything illegal here,” said Portillo, who opened his business about six weeks ago. Portillo said the DEA agents did not tell him what they were looking for, and made several references to the operation being “Obama (expletive).”
“I was like, ‘This is just (expletive) politics …,'” Portillo said.
On July 9, President Barack Obama signed the Synthetic Drug Abuse Prevention Act of 2012, which instituted tougher criminal penalties for selling some first-generation synthetic drugs — such as K2 and Spice — as well as some newer ones.
In March 2011, the DEA “emergency scheduled” several chemicals often found in herbal incense products that make them chemically similar to tetrahydrocannabinol, THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana.
However, Castillo wrote in his affidavit that “clandestine manufacturers and traffickers” began distributing smokable cannabinoid products in an attempt to circumvent newly enacted federal and state laws.
Castillo said the criminal offenses possibly committed by the investigation’s targets include possession with intent to distribute analogs of a controlled substance, and selling drug paraphernalia.
Portillo, whose store also sells health items, regular tobacco products, cell phones, vaporizers and storage containers, said he never believed he was selling anything illegal and added that he cooperated with authorities. He also said the raid will only temporarily hurt his business.
“We’ll be all right. We’ll be back,” he said.
Brian Fraga can be reached at (575) 541-5462; Follow him on Twitter @bfraga
The Drug Enforcement Administration, investigating the alleged production and distribution of synthetic drugs, obtained search warrants for the following businesses in southern New Mexico:
— Phat Glass, 1211 East Idaho, Las Cruces
— Phat Glass South, 306 Union, Las Cruces
— Phat Glass Too, 109 North New York, Alamogordo
— Phat Glass 3, 823 North New York, Alamogordo
— Sam’s Gift Shop and Smoking Accessories, 607-C South White Sands Boulevard, Alamogordo
— Neverwhere, 940 North Main, Las Cruces
— Somewhere Else Comic Books and Games, 1230 South Solano, Las Cruces
— Zia Tattoo, 1300 El Paseo, Las Cruces
— Station Recreation, 1621 Appaloosa, Sunland Park
— The Realm Hookah Lounge, 991 West Picacho, Las Cruces
— Smokin Supply, 1315 South Solano, Las Cruces
— Hookah Outlet, 1900 South Espina, Las Cruces
— Subherbia, 1200 East Madrid, Las Cruces
— Subherbia 2, 150 South Solano, Las Cruces
LAS CRUCES — Federal and local law enforcement officers raided at least three Las Cruces smoke shops today as part of a wider investigation into synthetic drugs.
Masked agents from the Drug Enforcement Agency, assisted by LCPD officers, are still on-scene at Phat Glass, 1211 East Idaho Ave., Smokin Supply, 1315 South Solano Drive, and Somewhere Else Comics and Games, 1230 South Solano Drive.
Police entered the comic store/smoke shop this morning with guns drawn and announced that they were raiding the business, said two witnesses who were inside the store.
Witnesses said the agents were “looking through everything” in the store, checking counters, receipts, and pat-frisking everybody inside the business and asking for their identifications.
Federal agents were also seen bringing evidence bags inside the stores.
DEA spokesman Carmen Coutino confirmed that the investigation was related to synthetic drugs. DEA agents in New Mexico and Texas have raided other smoke shops looking to confiscate synthetic marijuana, commonly known as SPICE, according to multiple media reports.
Coutino said more information will be released later today, adding: “DEA agents are conducting numerous enforcement operations throughout the region. This is part of a bigger operation.”
LAS CRUCES — Shops near the corner of Solano Drive and Idaho Avenue may be part of a federal raid by agents looking to confiscate the synthetic drug Spice.
According to Sun-News reporter Brian Fraga, the Las Cruces Police Department is assisting the Drug Enforcement Agency in an investigation Wednesday at Phat Glass, 1211 E. Idaho Ave., Smokin’ Supply, 1315 S. Solano Drive, and Somewhere Else Comics and Games, 1230 S. Solano Drive.
Police entered the comic store/smoke shop this morning with guns drawn and announced they were raiding the business, two witnesses on scene said.
DEA agents are raiding locations across New Mexico, according to multiple media sources.
DEA agents raided at least one location in Sunland Park and KOB.com is reporting DEA raided 16 locations in Albuquerque today.
A spokeswoman for the agency told KFOX14 that they are looking to confiscate Spice.
Spice refers to a wide variety of herbal mixtures that produce experiences similar to marijuana and that are marketed as safe, legal alternatives to that drug, according to the National Institute of Drug Abuse.
Synthetic marijuana was banned in New Mexico in April 2011.