(MCT) — Local and federal authorities seized $4.6 million worth of alleged synthetic drugs Wednesday in the St. Louis area as part of a nationwide crackdown on synthetic drug manufacturers, wholesalers and retailers.
The drugs seized included suspected synthetic marijuana and stimulants, the latter of which has been compared to a hallucinogenic methamphetamine. The raids were announced Thursday at a news conference hosted by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration at its St. Louis offices and attended by law enforcement officials from both sides of the Mississippi River, including Madison County State's Attorney Tom Gibbons, Madison County Sheriff's Lt. T. Mike Dixon and Edwardsville Police Chief James Bedell.
The seizures were the culmination of a months-long investigation called Operation Log Jam, the first-ever nationwide law-enforcement action against the synthetic designer drug industry. The drug makers create synthetic drugs that are often marketed and mislabeled as incense, bath salts or plant food, according to authorities.
"Synthetic drugs are not pot, they are dangerous, unpredictable chemicals," St. Clair County State's Attorney Brendan Kelly said. "I am encouraged that the federal government has now joined the fight in a big way because people pumping poison into our community must be confronted."
Among those targeted were four businesses in Madison County, Gibbons said. Six search warrants also were executed in St. Clair County, Kelly said.
About a half-dozen arrests were made in the St. Louis area, but no charges were filed as tests were pending on the seized evidence and also to determine whether state or federal authorities will handle the cases. None of the arrests were in Madison County, and it was unclear if any were made in St. Clair County.
Nationwide, authorities made 77 arrests, targeted 29 manufacturing facilities, seized $14.5 million in cash and recovered about five million packets of alleged drugs, mostly synthetic marijuana, according to the DEA.
The peddlers of these drugs are a mixture of experienced drug traffickers and first-timers trying to make a quick buck, said James Shroba, the acting special agent in charge of the DEA's St. Louis division.
The national raids follow local ones launched by Kelly and St. Clair County law enforcement agencies in April, in which 13 convenience stores allegedly selling synthetic drugs were targeted. In June, Kelly's office charged the owners of three Crown Food Marts in East St. Louis with selling illegal synthetic and look-alike drugs.
Specifics about what was seized Wednesday from the metro-east businesses were unavailable Thursday because the search warrants had yet to be filed in circuit court. Kelly's office did not immediately provide the list of businesses targeted in St. Clair County.
Gibbons said the following Madison County businesses were raided: Tha Grind, 1009 Century Drive in Edwardsville; Duck 'N Vals Shed, 3117 W. Chain of Rocks Road Shed 1 in Granite City; Box of Rain, 435 W. MacArthur Drive in Cottage Hills; and Hippie Spirit, 518 E. Chain of Rocks Road in Mitchell.
Tha Grind is being investigated as a possible manufacturer of the synthetic drugs in addition to being a retail outlet, unlike the other Madison County businesses which only appear to have been selling the products, Gibbons said.
"The Grind is a big deal," said Bedell, adding the business had previously been warned not to sell the substances. "They sold a lot of product out of there."
Representatives for Tha Grind, Hippie Spirit and Box of Rain could not be reached for comment and the latter two businesses posted messages for their customers stating they would be closed temporarily. None of the businesses have been shut down, Gibbons said.
Duck 'N Vals Shed put the following message on its Facebook page: "Sorry, we will be closed for a couple days. Megsi (Metropolitan Enforcement Group of Southern Illinois) decided our tobacco smoking products were illegal and totally wiped out our inventory. Will see you all again real soon. Thank you for your continued business!"
Duck 'N Vals owner Jeffrey Held said officers seized about $5,000 worth of products, including incense and pipes, from his business which operates out of a storage shed. Held said the company that distributed the incense provided him with documents stating the products were legal.
"As far as I know it was like incense or potpourri," he said.
But authorities say selling the products as incense, or in the case of the stimulants as bath salts, and labeling the products "not for human consumption" are merely ruses meant to mask the products' intended purpose and to evade federal regulations governing products intended for human consumption or medical use.
The DEA displayed packets of alleged synthetic marijuana sold in packages labeled Crazy Eyes, Primo, and Cloud 9 Mad Hatter, all of which were being advertised on a website directly linked to Tha Grind's Facebook page.
Also displayed were seized bags of damiana leaf, a plant native to Texas, said Scott Collier, diversion program manager for the DEA's St. Louis division. Authorities believe manufacturers mix synthetic cannabinoids with acetone and then spray the substance onto the leaves in order to create a product that can be smoked.
The synthetic stimulants appeared to be a whitish powder that were sold in small jars for $40 a half-gram.
Users thinking they are putting something natural into bodies are mistaken, Gibbons said. Customers have no idea what they are buying because the products' labels provide no information about what is inside, he said.
"You have no idea what you're putting into your body," he said.
Two Madison County residents died of overdoses of bath salts last year, but that total was dwarfed by the number of people who died of prescription drug and heroin overdoses in the county. Although hospitals have reportedly treated many more nonfatal synthetic drug overdoses, neither St. Clair nor Madison County has confirmed additional fatal overdoses.
Governments across the country started outlawing synthetic drugs the last couple of years after poison centers and hospitals began reporting thousands of calls and overdoses involving synthetic marijuana and bath salts. The federal government joined in the fight by at first placing a temporary ban on both synthetic marijuana and certain synthetic stimulants and placing a permanent ban on 26 of these substances earlier this month.
One problem for law enforcement has been that drug manufacturers keep changing the formulas to avoid the bans.
Gibbons said prosecutors could look to charge the suspects under laws outlawing synthetic drugs and their analogues. Also, Illinois law outlaws the marketing and selling of products labeled not for human consumption, but which are being sold for that purpose, he said.
"They know full well the market they are trying to push this to," he said.
Not everyone was happy with the raids. For instance, the following messages were posted on Tha Grind's and Duck 'N Vals' Facebook pages, respectively:
"This blows! You guys really were awesome! I'm sad that you had to go down this way!"
"What an outrage! They should be doing more important things like getting heroin out of granite!"
Held said he plans to reopen his business, but this time without offering the troublesome incense.
"I'm not going to carry that crap anymore," he said.