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US makes major bust of global synthetic drug ring

27 june 2013, 14:05
0
©REUTERS
©REUTERS
US officials announced the largest-ever bust of a global synthetic drugs ring Wednesday, seizing thousands of pounds of illicit drugs and arresting 225 people in five countries and 35 US states, AFP reports.

Authorities seized up to 3,300 pounds (1,500 kilograms) of "dangerous designer synthetic drugs" that were manufactured in Asia and trafficked to the United States and Australia, where dealers sold them to youths and young adults, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) said.

In what is rapidly emerging as one of the greatest of drug interdiction challenges, hundreds of kinds of synthetic drugs are being made in what DEA described as unregulated labs overseas, notably in China and India.

The DEA said Project Synergy began last December but culminated Wednesday when most of the arrests were made.

Nearly $15 million in cash and assets were seized in the operation, which saw arrests or search warrants executed in 35 US states, 49 cities and the countries of Australia, Barbados, Canada and Panama.

Millions of dollars in drug sale profits were being funneled to the Middle East, potentially into existing terror networks that are known to fund their illicit operations through drug trafficking, officials said.

The designer drugs, which mimic controlled substances, are among a growing group of illicit compounds that traffickers have marketed in recent years, often attempting to skirt laws by barely modifying the chemical makeup of products like incense, bath salts or jewelry cleaner.

The drugs -- synthetic cannabinoids that can provide a marijuana-like high, or synthetic cathinones that are stimulant hallucinogens -- are marketed under brand names like "Spice," "K2" or "Bliss" and sold in colorful, youth-oriented packaging, often with comic book characters on the cover.

US officials say abuse of the drugs can lead to seizures, hallucinations, high blood pressure and organ damage.

Several overdoses, mainly of people age 12 to 29, have led to emergency room visits and even deaths, the DEA said.

"The bottom line is that these drugs are being marketed to the most vulnerable part of our society, which is teenagers and young adults," DEA chief of operations James Capra told reporters.

He said profits were being funneled to the Middle East, and while he would not be drawn on exactly which groups were benefiting, citing the ongoing investigation, Capra hinted that terror networks were involved.

"You have this convergence out there, more so today than ever before, of terror groups funding their operations through the sale of narcotics around the globe," he said.

The traffickers have convinced distributors including some gas stations and convenience stores that their drugs are legal, when in fact they are sometimes dangerous alterations of allowed products.

"It's marketed 'not for human consumption,' but it's killing kids," warned Derek Maltz, who heads the Justice Department's Special Operations Division.

Officials highlighted the multinational nature of the operation, including agents in Australia, where synthetic drugs are marketed.

The seizure "is a terrific result for law enforcement agencies across the globe," said Australia's Acting Ambassador to the US Graham Fletcher.

Many similar products have been legal for years. But traffickers began tweaking the chemical components to increase their psychotic effects.

The nearly inexhaustible chemical combinations available to the drugs' creators make it a struggle for authorities to keep up.

"It's much more than a two-dimensional bath salts and Spice problem," Special Agent Robert Bell, of DEA's Office of Diversion Control, told AFP.

"There have been more than 200 brand new drugs introduced into the United States since 2009 from several structural classes."

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