Why synthetic drug busts are so rare

Houston officials charged 16 men with drug-related charges after millions of dollars and almost 10 tons of synthetic drugs were found during a bust. Despite the reach of synthetic drugs, regulating their use is difficult. 

John Badman/The Telegraph/AP/File
Macoupin County Board Chairman Andy Manar shows reporters examples of synthetic drugs at a 2012 news conference in Carlinville, Ill. Federal and Texas authorities charged 16 people in conjunction with a synthetic drug ring on Tuesday.

Reminiscent of the hit AMC show "Breaking Bad," a professor in the Southwest has been charged with possession and intent to distribute synthetic drugs.

The Houston Police Department, in collaboration with the US Drug Enforcement Administration, have arrested 12 people in the Houston area, one suspect in Virginia, and another suspect in California. Authorities are still searching for two other Texas residents involved – Ziad Mahmoud Alsalameh and Aqil Khader – who are considered fugitives. One of the men arrested, Omar Al Nasser, is a finance professor with the University of Houston in Victoria, Texas.

"These individuals are being charged in the manufacturing of what has become one of the most dangerous and emerging public health threats in the United States – synthetic drugs," Kenneth Magidson, the US Attorney for the Southern District of Texas, tells ABC13 News in Houston. 

Synthetic drugs are compounds comprised of man-made chemicals and sometimes added to natural plant material that act as a chemical version of popular illegal drugs, such as marijuana or cocaine. Controlling their distribution has been particularly challenging for law enforcement because they are often disguised as legal products, such as bath salts or potpourri, and sold in plain sight in gas stations and convenient stores.

Authorities are asking for a return of $35 million in a money judgment. Judging by the millions of dollars found on scene at the bust – along with nine and a half tons of synthetic drugs – Mr. Magidson says this return shows "the kind of money" authorities believe these 16 men were making through their drug ring. 

"Some of the products were allegedly labeled as 'potpourri' or 'incense,' with some including false information such as '100% legal,' 'lab certified,' or 'not for human consumption,' " says the US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Texas in a press release Tuesday. "According to the charges, these products were, in fact, dangerous drugs." 

Regardless of their accessibility, synthetic drugs are classified as Schedule I drugs – the DEA's listing of the most dangerous and addictive drugs, including LSD, heroin, and ecstasy. 

Synthetic drugs, specifically synthetic marijuana, have come to the forefront of national and local agendas after especially high uses were recorded among high school students. According to a University of Michigan study from 2012, 11.3 percent of high school seniors recorded using synthetic marijuana, the second most-used drug after marijuana at 36.4 percent.

Initially, states tried to ban these drugs individually, but distributors would simply make minor changes to the chemical composition of the product, making them technically legal. To combat this, legislation has issued more general bans to prohibit synthetic drugs at large.

"Since 2011 all 50 states have banned two types of the synthetic drugs – cannabinoids (a.k.a. 'synthetic marijuana,' 'Spice,' or 'K2') and cathinones (a.k.a. 'bath salts') – with the majority doing so via legislation," according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Dealers and distributors have also tried to mask their products with various names, however the drugs are illegal regardless of title.

"Companies selling synthetic drugs as legal products, like incense or bath salts, attempt to avoid liability for harm from use of the products as drugs by labeling the products as not intended for human consumption. These labels have no impact on the applicability of local, state or federal laws that limit or prohibit the sale of synthetic drugs," explains the American Public Health Association. "Just like cocaine may not be sold as a kitchen cleaner, banned synthetic drugs may not be sold as incense."

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