Multi-Agency Enforcement Operation in New Mexico Serves Signficant Role in Nationwide Synthetic Drug Takedown
|U.S. Attorney’s Office June 27, 2013|
ALBUQUERQUE—During a press conference this afternoon, federal, state, and local officials announced the results of the multi-agency enforcement operation in New Mexico which was part of yesterday’s DEA-led enforcement operations in 35 states targeting the upper echelon of dangerous designer synthetic drug trafficking organizations that have operated without regard for the law or public safety.
Project Synergy, which was coordinated by DEA’s Special Operations Division, began in December 2012. Leading up to yesterday’s nationwide takedown, Project Synergy included 75 arrests, the seizure of nearly $15 million in cash and assets, and the seizure of more than 1550 kilograms of synthetic drugs at express consignment facilities. According to DEA, during yesterday’s nationwide takedown, law enforcement executed more than 150 arrest warrants and 375 search warrants in 35 states, 49 cities, and five countries.
New Mexico played a significant role in Project Synergy that involved a multi-agency investigation by the Albuquerque Office of the DEA, the Albuquerque Police Department, the McKinley County Sheriff’s Office, the Grants Police Department, and the Region II Narcotics Task Force that began in November 2012. The investigation, which was code-named Operation Old Spice, New Money, initially targeted synthetic cannabinoid (“spice”) distribution in Cibola, McKinley, and San Juan Counties and expanded to Bernalillo County. During yesterday’s enforcement operation, officers arrested four individuals on federal charges and executed 28 federal search warrants and 22 seizure warrants resulting in the seizure of more than 100,000 retail sale packets of spice and 15 pounds of bulk spice, more than $1.2 million from bank accounts, more than $135,000 in cash, 18 vehicles, and 13 firearms.
The results of the investigation were announced by U.S. Attorney Kenneth J. Gonzales; Joseph M. Arabit, Special Agent in Charge of the El Paso Division of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA); U.S. Marshal Conrad E. Candelaria; Carol K.O. Lee, Special Agent in Charge of the Albuquerque Field Division of the FBI; Chief Kyle Westall of the Farmington Police Department; Bernalillo County Sheriff Dan Houston; McKinley County Sheriff Felix T. Begay; San Juan County Sheriff Ken Christesen; and Fire Marshal Victor Padilla of the Albuquerque Fire Department.
In announcing New Mexico’s role in yesterday’s nationwide takedown, U.S. Attorney Gonzales said, “Synthetic cannabinoid products, commonly known as Spice, or packaged as purported incense or potpourri, are the latest dangerous designer drugs to reach our neighborhoods. These products have proven to be a public health hazard with serious and sometimes deadly consequences. It is imperative that everyone, especially unwary young people, realize that Spice is not for sport, and we will prosecute those who know the dangers but push it for profit behind a facade of a legitimate business. I thank DEA and its federal, state, and local partners here in New Mexico for working very hard not just to eradicate these dangerous drugs from our community but also for their efforts to educate the public about the dangers they present, particularly for our young people.”
“The abuse of dangerous synthetic drugs has become a nationwide concern. DEA, in collaboration with our law enforcement partners, will continue to identify, investigate, arrest, and seize the illicit assets of those who manufacture and deal in these substances,” said DEA Special Agent in Charge Joseph M. Arabit. “Individuals, retailers, and organizations that continue to circumvent the law and engage in the trafficking of these dangerous drugs should be on notice that law enforcement agencies will utilize all available resources to hold them accountable for their actions.”
The individuals arrested yesterday are: Khaled Assi, 39, of Gallup, New Mexico; Mohammed Kayed Assi, 26, of Farmington, New Mexico; Nael Assi, 41, of Gallup, New Mexico; and Amro Assi, 33, of Grants, New Mexico. Mohammed Assi is a United States citizen. Khaled Assi is a Jordanian national pending an immigration review to continue to reside legally in the United States; and Nael and Amro Assi are Jordanian nationals who are legal permanent residents of the United States. All four defendants made their initial appearances in federal court this morning and are temporarily detained pending detention hearings scheduled for tomorrow.
Khaled Assi, Mohammed Assi, and Nael Assi are charged with conspiracy to distribute a controlled substance analogue in an indictment filed on June 25, 2013. According to the indictment, these three defendants conspired to distribute Spice in San Juan and McKinley Counties from January 2012 through April 2013. The indictment also charges Khaled Assi with distributing Spice on February 14, 2012, in San Juan County. Amro Assi is charged with conspiracy and distribution of a controlled substance analogue in a criminal complaint filed on June 26, 2013. If convicted, each defendant faces a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison and Khaled Assi, Nael, and Amro Assi will be deported after serving their prison sentences.
During yesterday’s enforcement operation, 15 search warrants were executed at the following businesses: ABQ Shop, From Rags 2 Riches II, WARZONE aka Rags 2 Riches III, The Moon Smoke Shop, Pyros Smoke Shop and Pyros Smoke Shop 2 in Albuquerque, New Mexico; VIP Smoke Shop and Rollet Smoke Shop in Kirtland, New Mexico; Rollet Smoke Shop #1 in Aztec, New Mexico; Cohiba Cigar Shop and Up N Smoke in Farmington; Fu King Smoke Shop #1, Fu King Smoke Shop #2, Fu King Smoke Shop #3, and Fu King Smoke Shop #4 in Gallup, New Mexico; Santa Fe Smoke Shop in Grants, New Mexico, and Lava Lounge in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Search warrants also were executed at six residences in Albuquerque, three residences in Gallup, two residences in Farmington, and one residence in Grants. Seizure warrants were executed on 21 checking accounts and one savings account.
“The joint federal and state multi-agency investigation that culminated in today’s charges demonstrates the seriousness and scope of the problem and the strength of our resolve to eradicate the threat posed by these synthetic drugs,” said U.S. Marshal Conrad E. Candelaria. “Synthetic marijuana, its producers, distributors, and sellers have been added to our list of targets on our continuing war on drugs and the U.S. Marshals Service is proud to support that effort.”
FBI Special Agent in Charge Lee said, “Many communities in New Mexico are safer today because of the close collaboration and teamwork demonstrated by the federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies involved in this operation. I would like to congratulate the DEA for their leadership and also thank the FBI special Aaents and Professional Support staff from the Gallup and Farmington Resident Agencies who helped make this operation a success.”
Farmington Police Chief Kyle Westall added, “The regional distribution of synthetic cannabinoids has seen an exponential increase in our community in the past few years. Without the help of the DEA, it would have been impossible for us to inhibit the flow of these dangerous drugs.”
“Synthetic drugs have been an increasing problem within McKinley County for some time now,” said McKinley County Sheriff Felix T. Begay. “We have been receiving countless complaints from both citizens and the business community within McKinley County concerning the sales and the use and abuse of Spice. We are proud to have been involved in this operation, and we applaud the Drug Enforcement Administration for their outstanding dedication to our community.”
Bernalillo County Sheriff Dan Houston said, “We at the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office very much value our partnerships with our local federal agencies. In fighting crime, we know without a doubt that the more we work together, the harder it is for criminals to operate. We are proud to have been a part of this significant endeavor.”
The cases resulting out of Operation Old Spice, New Money are being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Samuel A. Hurtado and related forfeiture proceedings are being handled by Assistant U.S. Attorneys Stephen R. Kotz and Cynthia L. Weisman. The cases were investigated by the Albuquerque Office of the DEA, the Albuquerque Police Department, the McKinley County Sheriff’s Office, the Grants Police Department, and the Region II Narcotics Task Force. The following agencies participated in yesterday’s enforcement operation: the Albuquerque, Farmington, and Gallup Offices of the FBI; the U.S. Marshals Service; the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service; the U.S. Border Patrol; the New Mexico State Police; the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office; Albuquerque Fire Department; the Corrales Police Department; the Farmington Police Department; the Gallup Police Department; the San Juan County Sheriff’s Office; and the Region I Narcotics Task Force.
Operation Old Spice, New Money was designated as part of the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force (OCDETF) program. OCDETF is a nationwide Department of Justice program that combines the resources and unique expertise of federal agencies, along with their local counterparts, in a coordinated effort to disrupt and dismantle major drug trafficking organizations. The investigation is continuing.
Background on Designer Synthetic Drugs
Designer synthetic drugs are often marketed as herbal incense, potpourri, bath salts, jewelry cleaner, or plant food and have caused significant abuse, addiction, overdoses, and emergency room visits. Those who have abused synthetic drugs have suffered vomiting, anxiety, agitation, irritability, seizures, hallucinations, tachycardia, elevated blood pressure, and loss of consciousness. They have caused significant organ damage as well as overdose deaths.
Smokable herbal blends marketed as being “legal” and providing a marijuana-like high have 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 impregnated with dangerous psychoactive compounds that mimic THC, the active ingredient in marijuana. 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. In 2012, a report by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) reported 11,406 emergency department visits involving a synthetic cannabinoid product during 2010. In a 2013 report, SAMHSA reported the number of emergency department visits in 2011 involving a synthetic cannabinoid product had increased 2.5 times to 28,531. The American Association of Poison Control Centers reported 5,205 calls related to human exposure of synthetic cannabinoids.
For the past several years, there has also 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 composed 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. The American Association of Poison Control Centers reported 2,656 calls related to synthetic cathinone (“bath salts”) exposures in 2012 and overdose deaths have been reported as well.
These products have become increasingly popular, particularly among teens and young adults and those who mistakenly believe they can bypass the drug testing protocols of 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 (FDA) for human consumption or for medical use, and there is no oversight of the manufacturing process.
Controlled Substance Analogue Enforcement Act
While many of the designer drugs being marketed today that were seized as part of Project Synergy are not specifically prohibited in the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), the Controlled Substance Analogue Enforcement Act of 1986 (AEA) allows many of 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 Project Synergy will be prosecuted federally under this analogue provision, which is being utilized 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” with names 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 2012.
For more information about this operation and synthetic designer drugs, visit www.dea.gov.