DEA raids smoke shops in Las Cruces, Sunland Park, Alamogordo


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

 

Closer look

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
1:27 p.m.

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.”

12:16 p.m.

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.

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Fake marijuana, Spice, being confiscated at smoke shops in N.M.


Drug Enforcement Agency

SUNLAND PARK, N.M. —

More than 15 federal agents are at a smoke shop in Sunland Park, N.M. Wednesday morning.

Drug Enforcement Agency agents are raiding a smoke shop near the Sunland Park Casino.

A spokeswoman for the agency tells KFOX14 that they are looking to confiscate the synthetic drug, Spice.

Spice refers to a wide variety of herbal mixtures that produce experiences similar to marijuana (cannabis) and that are marketed as safe, legal alternatives to that drug, according to the National Institute of Drug Abuse.

It’s sold under many names, including K2, fake weed, Yucatan Fire, Skunk, Moon Rocks.

DEA officials also told KFOX14 that they are raiding all smoke shops in southern New Mexico.

Multiple federal agencies and local authorities are conducting this investigation, DEA officials said.

The synthetic marijuana was banned in New Mexico in April 2011 when Gov. Susana Martinez signed the measure into law.

Spice: Synthetic marijuana was declared illegal in New Mexico last year, but it’s still gaining a foothold in Carlsbad


CARLSBAD — For years, spice, potpourri and incense have been used by the general population for cooking and making their homes smell sweeter. But that has changed.

 

Today, those harmless sounding products are finding their way into the hands and bodies of teens and adults in Carlsbad and Eddy County as illicit drugs.

 

Pecos Valley Drug Task Force Commander Carroll Caudill said the use of spice in Eddy County is becoming a problem.

 

Termed as synthetic marijuana, spice is sold under many brand names such as Texas Tea, Mystic Monkey Potpourri, K2 Spice and Route 69. Users smoke it or drink it as a tea to get a high.

 

Sold in glitzy packaging, some dealers charge $20 a gram, about the amount found in an artificial sweetener package such as Sweet’N Low, Caudill said.

 

“I think at this point it is becoming a real big problem,” he said. “In the last six months the amount of spice we have seized has really increased. It’s becoming a big problem, not just in our county. Law enforcement in neighboring counties and cities are telling us the same thing. That’s why we have been diligent in trying to stop the sale of spice. But it is difficult.”

 

Last month the task force reportedly seized more than 4,000 packets of spice from a local business and arrested the owner, who is now facing federal charges.

Caudill said up until last year when Gov. Susana Martinez signed a bill making New Mexico the 16th states to ban synthetic marijuana,


law enforcement’s hands were tied. Now that there is a state law — backed by a new federal law signed by President Obama last week — that bans spice and other chemically formed drugs such as bath salts, Caudill said it gives law enforcement agencies such as his the green light to investigate and arrest users and dealers.

 

In signing the bill last year, Martinez, a former top prosecutor in Dona Ana County, said: “These drugs are no less harmful just because they are known by catchy names and are chemically different than the substances they are supposed to replicate. They can pack a powerful punch and can hold devastating consequences for anyone who uses them.”

Caudill sees it the same way. He said before Martinez signed the bill manufacturers would make a slight change in their spice ingredient, and by that one change, it would become legal and frustrate law enforcement.

 

With the new federal law in place, changing part or all of the chemical ingredients still makes spice or bath salt illegal. The federal law could land a dealer in federal court, as seen recently by the alleged dealer arrested in Carlsbad.

How are teens and adults in Eddy County getting the product if it is banned in New Mexico?

“It’s all coming from out of state,” Caudill explained. “In the most recent case we worked, the stuff came out of California and Arizona. Some of the stuff was also from China. It’s easy to buy it online and get it sent in the mail. It is very difficult to police when it comes in the mail.

 

“They are selling it online as incense. But it is not fit for human consumption. The dealers fully know what they are doing. Unlike marijuana, crack and meth, a (drug sniffing) dog doesn’t detect spice. The Postal Service may have a way to detect it, but we don’t.”

Eve Flanigan, Carlsbad Community Anti-Drug/Gang Coalition program manager, who works with teens in Carlsbad and Eddy County, lauded the Drug Task Force’s recent arrest of an alleged local dealer.

“It’s a big problem. We have had teen

s telling us for the past three or four years that they have been using spice and bath salts. There is a strong awareness among teens about the drug, but not among adults,” she said.

 

Flanigan said parents need to be educated on the products.

 

“The Food and Drug Administration is now regulating these drugs that have flown under the radar for so long,” she said. “Spice is similar to marijuana in that people mostly roll it and smoke it. The packaging of spice is glitzy and the marketing and packaging can change in a day. The bad thing is there is no labeling on the package telling the user what the product contains. You don’t know what chemical was mixed in.”

 

According to a publication by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services National Institute on Drug Use, spice products are popular among young people. Of the illicit drugs most used by high school senior, spice products are second only to marijuana.

Easy access and the misperception that spice products are “natural” and therefore harmless, have likely contributed to their popularity. Another selling point is that the chemicals used in spice are not easily detected in standard drug tests.

 

To demonstrate the popularity of spice among teens, Flanigan tells a story about a local juvenile probation officer who told seven of her young probationers that she was going to have them tested for spice at the same time.

 

“She had them together and gave them the opportunity to admit if they had used it before actually having them tested. Every single one of them said they used spice. That was about 18 months ago,” Flanigan said.

 

Consequences from using spice

Caudill said claims made that spice is safe to use scare him.

“I don’t know if we have had anyone in Carlsbad overdose and die from using spice,” Caudill said. “I read recently about a doctor’s research. He said spice acts more like an amphetamine and not (like) marijuana. He said he had one 14-year-old patient that tried to commit suicide by jumping out of a multi-story office window. Parents need to be very vigilant about what their teens are bringing into the house.”

 

Flanigan said she has read many publications about the effects of spice and all reported abusers of spice in need of medical attention as a result of their use of the drug showed symptoms that included a rapid heart rate, vomiting, agitation, confusion and hallucinations. Spice can also raise blood pressure and cause reduced blood supply to the heart. In a few cases, the drug has been linked to heart attacks

She said because spice has flown under the radar for so long, it’s really hard to tell how toxic it may be. But public health officials have voiced concern that there may be harmful heavy metal residues in spice mixtures.

 

Caudill said while the law is now clear that spice or any other synthetic drug is now illegal to use, still, policing it is not easy.

 

“It’s one more thing we have to look at,” he added.