In a nationwide crackdown on synthetic drugs, federal agents conducted raids in 29 states Wednesday. Authorities suspect a link between the drugs and terror groups.
Though they are sold at retail shops and online, these drugs are very dangerous. In 2011, there were close to 29,000 emergency room visits related to synthetic drug products. Laced with unknown chemicals, the majority of these drugs are manufactured in China.
The nationwide sweep involved more than 45 Drug Enforcement Administration officers going door-to-door in 29 states, searching for and confiscating hundreds of thousands of packaged synthetic drugs.
Agents arrested more than 150 people and seized more than $20 million in cash and assets.
Their main target is synthetic marijuana, sometimes known as "spice." Made from dried leaves laced with toxic chemicals, which a user then smokes, the drug is popular with teenagers and young adults, and because it's often sold in convenience stores and gas stations, many of its users believe it's legal.
Chief DEA Agent Eduardo Chavez said, "Spice is one of those drugs that if we do not get ahead of and if the American public does not recognize the dangers that it could cause to its youth it could cause devastating effects, much like heroin, much like meth."
Chavez oversaw 16 raids in Albuquerque, New Mexico. More than $310,000 was seized in that state alone.
"This spice that is being completely morphed into a variety of chemicals is just taking youth by storm," Chavez said.
In one smoke shop in Birmingham, Alabama, agents also discovered wire transfers totaling more than $38 million to Yemen, furthering a suspicion that drug profits are funding overseas terrorist organizations. This bust now will give federal agents a chance to follow the money trail.
DEA spokesman Rusty Payne said, "I don't want to say 100 percent definitively that this is financing terror, but we have a pretty good idea of where this money is going. That should alarm people."
The challenge for officials moving forward is that synthetic drugs are always changing. The drug makers will regularly modify formulas and create new brand names to try and skirt the rules and avoid prosecution.