This week the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) announced another huge crackdown on the transnational designer drug industry, which produces hundreds of knock-off substances replicating the effects of narcotics such as cannabis, LSD, and cocaine.
The federal raids, called Project Synergy Phase II, rounded up more than 150 people across 29 states, seizing “hundreds of thousands” of packages of synthetic drugs — commonly known as spice, meow meow, or bath salts, among other names.
Officers also confiscated “hundreds” of kilos of the raw materials needed to manufacture them, according to the DEA’s statement. The feds grabbed $20 million in cash and assets.
“The criminality associated with marijuana [among other drugs] encourages people to seek synthetic substances that are unregulated or perceived to be legal,” Grant Smith, policy manager at Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), told VICE News.
Yet synthetic drugs can also be very risky. The United Nations made the problem clear in a 2013 report on world narcotics use: “What makes new psychoactive substances especially dangerous and problematic is the general perception surrounding them. They have often been marketed as ‘legal highs’, implying that they are safe to consume and use, while the truth may be quite different.”
Aside from obvious recreational properties, some manufacturers use synthetics to evade drug screening tests mandated by employers, according to sources in law enforcement.
Synthetic drug casualties have boomed in recent years. In 2011, 29,000 people — up from 11,000 in 2010 — visited hospital emergency rooms after they consumed mock marijuana substances, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration last year.
The UN and the US government both say such “new psychoactive compounds” have the potential to cause significant organ damage and death from overdose.
The federal government recently criminalized many of the synthetic drugs seized by the DEA this week. On March 7, 10 synthetic cathinones were marked as Schedule I, or drugs with “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” Other Schedule I narcotics include cannabis, peyote, and MDMA.
Synthetic forms of cannabis and other drugs are still available over the counter in several San Francisco neighborhoods, VICE News verified on Thursday.
Yet not every country believes that rigid enforcement of synthetics is the best solution. Since the new form of narcotics has emerged and become widely available, other countries have implemented approaches that involve a more sophisticated response than just handing off the problem to law enforcement and the justice system.
New Zealand, for example, has opted to regulate the emerging industry, testing synthetic drugs rigorously, and allowing their sale to anyone over 18. Other countries are eyeing New Zealand’s experiment with interest, according to the Associated Press.
In the US, the Drug Policy Alliance hopes for a similar, more enlightened approach to narcotics policy. “We have the opportunity with synthetic drugs to take a new approach,” Smith said. “One that’s grounded on an evidence-based approach and public health.”
The DEA said that some cash made from synthetics sales is being funneled to Middle East countries such as Yemen, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon, among other places.
Many of the compounds seized by the authorities are shipped from East Asia and the Indian sub-continent. Law enforcement officials have told me in the past that it’s nearly impossible to interdict all drug shipments inbound to US ports.
These raids are the second phase of Project Synergy. Its first phase resulted in 227 arrests and about $60 million seized in cash and property. The DEA has also warned that further enforcement action is pending.