Federal agents and New York City authorities raided about 80 locations throughout the city Wednesday and arrested six people in what officials are calling the largest crackdown on the importation, distribution and sale of synthetic cannabinoids, commonly known as synthetic marijuana, in New York City history, law enforcement officials said.
A total of 10 people were named in a federal indictment on charges of participating in a scheme to illegally import at least 100 kilograms of illegal synthetic compounds into the U.S., enough to produce 260,000 retail packets, officials said. The seizure had a street value of about $30 million.
Of the 10 suspects, four are still being sought, officials say.
Several of the defendants are accused of importing illegal synthetic compounds in powdered form from China using commercial delivery services and transporting them to a processing facility in the Bronx where other defendants mixed the compounds with chemical solvents and then sprayed the mixture onto tea leaves, the indictment says.
Co-conspirators then bundled the dried tea leaves into retail packets, labeled them and transported them to warehouses controlled by wholesale distributors, the indictment alleges.
Officials say the retail packets, which contained about 3 to 6 grams of synthetic marijuana, were sold to individual customers for $5 per packet. Packets were sold under names such as “AK-47, “Blue Caution,” “Green Giant,” “Geeked Up,” “Psycho” and other brands.
The investigation and raids were conducted by the DEA, the NYPD, Homeland Security Investigations and the NYC Sheriff’s office.
Those arrested Tuesday appeared in federal court in Manhattan later Wednesday. All are charged with conspiracy to distribute narcotics and face up to 20 years in prison if convicted.
Prosecutors asked for a high bail amount for the defendants because of the money involved in the operation -- $30 million worth of products have been seized so far.
Two of the defendants were released on $200,000 bond; three others were released on $500,000 bond. One other suspect, Murad Kassim, remains detained on $1 million bond because he was a flight risk, the judge said. Kassim is also believed to have access to to a significant portion of the money in the scheme.
All defendants have been ordered to surrender travel documents and were given travel restrictions within the southern and eastern districts of New York.
Officials say synthetic marijuana is popular among teenagers and young adults because it is inexpensive and sold at legitimate retail locations.
The U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy has reported the effects of synthetic marijuana use include anxiety, nausea, vomiting, rapid heart rate, tremors, seizures and suicidal thoughts.
Authorities said potency can vary from batch to batch so no one knows the precise effects. Synthetic marijuana is not detected by drug tests, so some users see it as a way to use without the risk of testing positive, according to officials.
“Despite sometimes being calls synthetic marijuana, this stuff is not marijuana. It can cause unpredictably severe and even lethal effects," Preet Bharara, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, said at a news briefing. "It is not natural and it is not harmless in any sense of the word. In fact, some experts believe that spice can be up to 100 times more potent than pot.”
“What is being sold every day in bodegas and convenience stores throughout the city to teenagers, to homeless people, to addicts is literally poison," Bharara added. "Toxic chemicals that bind to receptors in the central nervous system to frightening and sometimes even deadline effect.”
At the news briefing, officials said phone calls to U.S. poison centers for synthetic marijuana in the first four months of this year increased 225 percent compared with the same time period last year. In New York state, use of synthetic pot resulted in 2,300 emergency room visits in a one-month period this year, a ten-fold increase compared with the same time period last year.
"This is a scourge on our society, affecting the most disadvantaged neighborhoods and our most challenged citizens. It affects teenagers in public housing, homeless in the city shelter system, and it’s quite literally flooding our streets," Police Commissioner Bill Bratton said in a statement. "This is marketed as synthetic marijuana, some call it K2. It is sold by the names of Galaxy, Diamond, Rush, and Matrix. But its real name is poison.”