ICE participates in nationwide synthetic drug takedown

ICE participates in nationwide synthetic drug takedown


WASHINGTON – More than 90 individuals were arrested and approximately five million packets of finished designer synthetic drugs were seized in the first-ever nationwide law enforcement action against the synthetic designer drug industry responsible for the production and sale of synthetic drugs that are often marketed as bath salts, Spice, incense, or plant food. More than $36 million in cash was also seized.

As of today, more than 4.8 million packets of synthetic cannabinoids (K2, Spice) and the products to produce nearly 13.6 million more, as well as 167,000 packets of synthetic cathinones (bath salts), and the products to produce an additional 392,000 were seized.

Operation Log Jam was conducted jointly by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), with assistance from the IRS Criminal Investigation, U.S. Postal Inspection Service, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, FBI, Food and Drug Administration’s Office of Criminal Investigations, as well as state and local law enforcement members in more than 109 U.S. cities and targeted every level of the synthetic designer drug industry, including retailers, wholesalers and manufacturers.

“Today, we struck a huge blow to the synthetic drug industry. The criminal organizations behind the importation, distribution and selling of these synthetic drugs have scant regard for human life in their reckless pursuit of illicit profits,” said Acting Director of ICE’s Office of Homeland Security Investigations James Chaparro. “ICE is committed to working with our law enforcement partners to bring this industry to its knees.”

“Although tremendous progress has been made in legislating and scheduling these dangerous substances, this enforcement action has disrupted the entire illegal industry, from manufacturers to retailers,” said DEA Administrator Michele M. Leonhart. “Together with our federal, state and local law enforcement partners, we are committed to targeting these new and emerging drugs with every scientific, legislative and investigative tool at our disposal.”

“The synthetic drug industry is an emerging area where we can leverage our financial investigative expertise to trace the path of illicit drug proceeds by identifying the financial linkages among the various co-conspirators,” said Richard Weber, chief, IRS Criminal Investigation. “We will continue working with our law enforcement partners to disrupt and ultimately dismantle the highest level drug trafficking and drug money laundering organizations that pose the greatest threat to Americans and American interests.”

“The U.S. Postal Inspection Service aggressively investigates the use of the U.S. Mail system for the distribution of illegal controlled substances and its proceeds. Our agency uses a multi-tiered approach to these crimes: protection against the use of the mail for illegal purposes and enforcement of laws against drug trafficking and money laundering. This includes collaboration with other agencies,” said Chief Postal Inspector Guy J. Cottrell.

“The mission of U.S. Customs and Border Protection is to guard our country’s borders from people and goods that could harm our way of life,” said Acting Commissioner David V. Aguilar. “We are proud to be part of an operation that disrupts the flow of synthetic drugs into the country and out of the hands of the American people.”

Over the past several years, there has been a growing use of, and interest in, synthetic cathinones (stimulants/hallucinogens) sold under the guise of “bath salts” or “plant food.” Marketed under names such as “Ivory Wave,” “Purple Wave,” “Vanilla Sky,” or “Bliss,” these products are comprised of a class of dangerous substances perceived to mimic cocaine, LSD, MDMA and/or methamphetamine. Users have reported impaired perception, reduced motor control, disorientation, extreme paranoia and violent episodes. The long-term physical and psychological effects of use are unknown but potentially severe.

These products have become increasingly popular, particularly among teens and young adults and those who mistakenly believe they can bypass the drug testing protocols that have been set up by employers and government agencies to protect public safety. They are sold at a variety of retail outlets, in head shops and over the Internet. However, they have not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration for human consumption or for medical use, and there is no oversight of the manufacturing process.

Smokable herbal blends marketed as being “legal” and providing a marijuana-like high have also become increasingly popular, particularly among teens and young adults, because they are easily available and, in many cases, they are more potent and dangerous than marijuana. These products consist of plant material that has been coated with dangerous psychoactive compounds that mimic THC, the active ingredient in marijuana. Just as with the synthetic cathinones, synthetic cannabinoids are sold at a variety of retail outlets, in head shops and over the Internet. Brands such as “Spice,” “K2,” “Blaze,” and “Red X Dawn” are labeled as incense to mask their intended purpose.

While many of the designer drugs being marketed today that were seized as part of Operation Log Jam are not specifically prohibited in the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), the Controlled Substance Analogue Enforcement Act of 1986 (AEA) allows these drugs to be treated as controlled substances if they are proven to be chemically and/or pharmacologically similar to a Schedule I or Schedule II controlled substance. A number of cases that are part of Operation Log Jam will be prosecuted federally under this analogue provision, which specifically exists to combat these new and emerging designer drugs.

DEA has used its emergency scheduling authority to combat both synthetic cathinones (the so-called bath salts like Ivory Wave, etc.) and synthetic cannabinoids (the so-called incense products like K2, Spice, etc.), temporarily placing several of these dangerous chemicals into Schedule I of the CSA. Congress has also acted, permanently placing 26 substances into Schedule I of the CSA.

In 2010, poison centers nationwide responded to about 3,200 calls related to synthetic “Spice” and “bath salts.” In 2011, that number jumped to more than 13,000 calls. Sixty percent of the cases involved patients 25 and younger


Drugs on demand: Methylone proves easy to get


Step one to becoming an importer of designer street drugs: Email a laboratory in China.

Step two: Wire a few thousand dollars to a friendly, English-speaking customer service representative.

Step three: Wait for the postal carrier.

According to federal court documents, that is how two Portsmouth men were able to bring almost 100 pounds of an Ecstasy-like stimulant called methylone to Virginia.

No clandestine airfields. No henchmen with machine guns. No crooked customs agents.

“It’s probably easier than buying a case of wine online,” said Richard Yarow, an attorney for a man who pleaded guilty last month to helping one of the importers wire money to China. “When you buy wine you at least have to show ID” when it is delivered.

Methylone, also known as lone, is relatively new to the U.S. drug scene – so much so that Yarow and other defense attorneys involved in these cases found themselves having to do research just to figure out what their clients were charged with dealing.

A white crystalline powder that is usually snorted, swallowed or mixed into drinks, methylone gained notoriety in the United States last year as a club drug popular at raves and electronic music shows, according to court documents and federal agents.

It also is a key ingredient in a particularly dangerous drug cocktail known as “bath salts” or “plant food” that can lead users to mutilate themselves or commit suicide, experts said.

The drug’s numerous aliases are ploys to avoid state and federal regulations, federal agents said. They are not actually bath salts to be used in a tub.

On the street, methylone costs about $30 a gram or $350 an ounce. Importers sell it for $2,600 to $4,000 a pound, court documents said.

Until late last year, methylone and other “bath salt” ingredients were generally legal in the United States, with packages of bath salts readily available online and in some gas stations and head shops. Some individual states had banned the drugs, but the federal government did not take immediate action.

“It’s come on so quickly we have kind of been taken aback,” said Shawn Ellerman, a spokesman for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. “It exploded in 2011.”

In an emergency decision last October, the DEA temporarily classified methylone and two other bath salts ingredients as Schedule I controlled substances – placing them in the same legal category as heroin, LSD and marijuana.

In the past six months, federal agents have broken up two methylone importation rings in Portsmouth. Both rings appeared to be selling the drug as a substitute for ecstasy, not as an ingredient in bath salts.

Michael Casey Brown, 22, and two associates pleaded guilty last month to conspiracy to import a controlled substance. With his friends taking delivery of the packages and wiring the money for him, Brown imported more than 32 pounds of methylone from China, court documents said. He faces up to 20 years in prison when he is sentenced Oct. 26 in U.S. District Court in Norfolk.

According to court documents, Brown and his two associates – Archie Lee McClennan, 65, and his 18-year-old grandson, Alex McElhaney – gave detailed confessions when confronted in February by federal agents.

Brown said a friend gave him an email address early last year for a lab in China. He placed his first order in May or June 2011, paying $300 to $400 for about a quarter pound of methylone.

Over the next few months, he made larger and larger orders until he was buying more than six pounds at a time.

To avoid detection, Brown had the packages sent to McClennan’s home after the first order. He also had McElhaney wire the money for him, court documents said.

McClennan told agents the packages came to his house in heavy-duty plastic bags labeled “Tungsten.”

Agents found three handguns in McClennan’s home: two revolvers and a .22 caliber Derringer.

The guns resulted in additional weapons convictions for him and McElhaney.

Both Brown and the other, unnamed importer started selling methylone before it was banned by the federal government, court documents said.

According to a statement of facts submitted with his guilty plea, Brown expected the crackdown.

“It’s gonna be scheduled soon, so I’m going to double it (the price),” Brown told McClennan, the documents said.

As part of a separate investigation, agents with Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations directorate got another methylone importer last month to give up some of his buyers.

David Lee Jones, 22, and his girlfriend, December Isabelle Justice, 23, were arrested earlier this month and charged with conspiracy to possess methylone and ecstasy with intent to distribute.

Their supplier, who is not named in court documents, has not been charged. According to documents filed in Jones cases, the supplier told agents he placed 10 or 11 orders with a lab in China – ordering about 6.5 pounds at a time.

Methylone is almost identical on a chemical level to ecstasy, experts said. Both drugs release dopamine and serotonin into a person’s central nervous system, producing a sense of euphoria and diminished anxiety.

The two drugs are so similar, Jones’ supplier actually sold the methylone as a powder form of ecstasy known as “Molly,” court documents said.

Louis De Felice, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of Medicine, said methylone is “as dangerous, if not more dangerous, than ecstasy.” He said there needs to be more research into exactly how the drug affects the brain, but he’s seen nothing to indicate it isn’t harmful.

Bath salts, he said, are even more scary. He said the drug causes the brain to release more dopamine, while at the same time preventing it from leaving the brain.

Comparing the brain to a sink, De Felice said that is a recipe for disaster.

“Not only do you turn on the faucet, but you close off the drain,” he said.

De Felice said bath salts could lead to early onset Parkinson’s disease and accelerated memory loss. He believes the drug kills neurons, physically changing how the brain works.

“It can take a young brain and make it much older,” he said.

Federal policy makers are aware of how easy it is to import some synthetic drugs and are working to make it harder. But they said doing that may require the help of the Chinese government.

“What’s illicit in the U.S. isn’t always illicit there,” said Ellerman.

While all packages sent to the United States are subject to inspection, drug-sniffing dogs cannot generally detect methylone and other synthetic drugs, federal agents said. A spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection added they cannot stop people from ordering things off the Internet.

During a March meeting in Vienna, Austria, the director of the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy spoke with his counterpart in China about how to stop the international sale of methylone and other designer drugs.

“The rising threat of new synthetic drugs requires a truly international response, and we look forward to extending our cooperative work with China to address the dangers that these substances pose to the citizens of both our countries,” Gil Kerlikowske said in a statement.


STONED – These are not your mothers Bath Salts!

Stone is the Chief Nursing Officer at Odessa Regional Medical Center.

Once upon a time, bath salts were something your mom reached for to help soak away her stress in a warm, relaxing tub. Unfortunately, “bath salts” have taken on a whole new meaning and drawn awareness to the ubiquitous world of synthetic drugs.

Unbeknownst to many, the synthetic drug market is alive and well, impacting people of diverse demographics and socioeconomic status. Since November 2008, synthetic cannabinoids, disguised as herbal incense products, were first detected in the United States by the Drug Enforcement Administration’s (DEA) forensic laboratory. Alongside other illicit drugs and narcotics, these synthetic drugs are routinely encountered by U.S. Customs and Border Protection adding additional strains to their workloads. Manufacturers are elusive and shifty, labeling products as seemingly harmless items with descriptions as “bath salts”, “plant foods”, and “herbal incense.” In efforts to be even more evasive, manufacturers and retailers add “not for human consumption” labels to disguise their intended purpose and routinely change formulations to avoid FDA regulations. Unfortunately, these products end up in the Permian Basin and the hidden dangers are ominously lurking.

With widespread availability, the problem continues to grow. According to the American Association of Poison Control Centers, 2,906 calls relating to human exposure to synthetic marijuana were received in 2010. Twice that number (6,959) were received in 2011, and 639 had been received as of January 2012. Adding to this growing concern, synthetic drugs can actually be worse and more addictive than the drugs they are trying to mimic.

Aside from marijuana, these products are created to imitate the same effects as cocaine, ecstasy, and methamphetamines. With so many formulations and inconsistent dosages, users can experience damaging side effects such as paranoia, anxiety, insomnia, hallucinations, rapid heart rate, and instant addiction. The intensity and severity of such side effects has been highlighted in recent news with erratic behaviors including, but not limited to; self-mutilation, violent crimes, homicide, suicide, and arson.

If you suspect someone is using synthetic drugs, some clues and signs may be present to help validate your suspicions. Although many items have been pulled from the market, synthetic drug products carry names such as “K2”, “Spice”, “Frog-E”, “Scooby Snax”, and “Cloud 9.” These items usually come in small pouches or tubes and deceivingly labeled as incense, bath salts, or potpourri. Since these products are often ingested, snorted, or inhaled, the presence of drug paraphernalia may also be present.

These items may include pipes, straws, cigarette papers, bongs, and/or spoons. Coupled with a sudden change in behavioral patterns, the presence of these or similar types of items, packages, and labels certainly hold merit to support your suspicions of synthetic drug abuse. Even casual drug use can lead to full blown addiction and dependence so do not hesitate to seek help and offer assistance to those in need. The best way to approach someone you suspect is abusing, is to remain calm, share your concerns and listen. Continue to closely monitor their activities and make clear your intentions to help rather than enable.

Regardless of laws, regulations, and bans, our drug problem will continue as long as the demand is present. The most powerful remedy to this issue lies within the consumer to simply quit using it and/or not support places of business that sell or have been known to sell synthetic drugs. Applying the basic principles of supply and demand has a greater impact than you might imagine. Not spending a dime in an establishment, including online businesses, who sell this junk in our community sends a clear message. Without your money, their business suffers.

The recent figures provided by the Prevention Resource Center (PRC), ranked Odessa second (only to Houston) of the highest rate of “bath salt” usage per capita in Texas. It’s safe to say the demand for synthetic drugs remains a threat to the Permian Basin. Considering these statistics, it appears an opportunity exists for us to evaluate where and how we choose to spend our money.