Synthetic drug crackdown yields arrests in 30 states

Last Place on Earth
Officers from the Duluth Police Department stand outside the Last Place on Earth on Wednesday, July 25, 2012, in Duluth, Minn. The head shop in downtown Duluth was shut down Wednesday as federal agents and local law enforcement executed a search warrant as part of an ongoing investigation.
Derek Montgomery for MPR

A crackdown on synthetic drugs on Thursday led to 91 arrests in 30 states across the country, according to federal law enforcement officials.

In a news conference Thursday at the Drug Enforcement Administration's headquarters in Washington, D.C., officials said they executed 265 search warrants in 90 cities in search of synthetic drugs.

"We're sending a clear message to those people who profit from the sale of these dangerous substances: You are nothing more than a drug trafficker and we will bring you to justice," said DEA Administrator Michele Leonhart.

Raids on Wednesday targeted establishments ranging from sex shops to truck stops that sell synthetic marijuana and drugs known as "bath salts." Bath salt is the street name for a synthetic stimulant that affects the user like cocaine.

In Minnesota, a raid was conducted at the Last Place on Earth head shop in downtown Duluth. A spokesperson for the DEA said the Duluth raid was part of an ongoing investigation into synthetic drugs at the store. Three people were arrested for outstanding warrants, although the arrests were not related to the investigation of the shop.

Law enforcement raided 29 manufacturers nationwide, which Leonhart said included rented warehouses and basement operations.

Agents seized 4.8 million packets of synthetic marijuana — including 20,000 packets from Last Place on Earth — and enough materials to produce 13.6 million packets. They also seized about 167,000 packets of "bath salts" and enough product to put together 392,000 more. The agencies seized $36 million in cash and $6 million in assets.

The nationwide raids stem from a federal ban signed this month by President Barack Obama, which explicitly outlaws 26 varieties of the drugs. Leonhart said the law allows law enforcement to adjust to emerging drugs. Synthetic drug manufacturers have often been able to slip past law enforcement by slightly adjusting the chemical makeup of drugs.

"The DEA can and will pursue those who skirt the letter of the law by simply just tweaking a molecule or changing a chemical formula," Leonhart said.

Leonhart expects that most of the charges from Wednesday's arrests will stem from state laws, although she said traffickers prosecuted under federal laws could face up to 20 years in prison.

Minnesota has also banned synthetic drugs. The state Legislature strengthened the ban last session to make it a felony to sell synthetic drugs, which could earn offenders up to five years in prison. The strengthened ban will go into place on Aug. 1.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement acting director of intelligence James Chaparro said it appears that many synthetic drugs are being produced in China or South Asia.