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U.S. Attorney: 10 Charged In New York City Synthetic Marijuana 'K2' Crackdown

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) -- New York law enforcement officials have announced a crackdown on synthetic marijuana use, saying it has become a health crisis of near epidemic proportions nationwide.

At a news conference Wednesday, officials announced the unsealing of a federal indictment against 10 manufacturers and distributors in a massive distribution ring in all five boroughs.

WEB EXTRA: What is K2? 5 Facts About Synthetic Marijuana

U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said the use of synthetic cannabinoids is causing deaths and sending thousands of people to emergency rooms around the country for treatment.

10 Charged In NYC Synthetic Marijuana Crackdown

NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton said the synthetic marijuana, also known as "K2" or "spice," was flooding the streets, harming teenagers in public housing and the homeless in city shelters in particular.

Law enforcement was investigating the flow of hundreds of millions of dollars from the United States to Yemen when the NYPD noticed a lot of K2 being sold out of bodegas and delis owned by Yemeni immigrants, 1010 WINS' Carol D'Auria reported. That's when the drug investigation was launched.

Bharara called it the single largest law enforcement action ever in New York City to combat the spice problem.

10 Charged In NYC Synthetic Marijuana Crackdown

The federal prosecutor said K2 is sold in small packets for as little as $5 apiece. But it's more like poison than pot, he said.

"They're made by spraying a variety of chemicals, mostly from China, onto leafy materials," Bharara told reporters, including WCBS 880's Marla Diamond. "Then once dried, the leaves are put into small packets with colorful logos and catchy brand names such as 'Black Giant,' 'Geeked Up' and 'Scooby Snacks.'

"In fact, some experts say that China is becoming to spice what Colombia has been to cocaine and what Afghanistan has been to heroin."

Using or selling K2 isn't a criminal offense in New York City, and selling or manufacturing the drug is only a health-code violation in New York state, punishable by a $250 fine.

Authorities, however, are charging the defendants with breaking federal laws by importing illegal synthetic compounds containing controlled substances, mixing the chemicals and then selling the synthetic drugs to stores.

Six defendants were arrested Tuesday. Four are fugitives.

Bharara said he anticipates additional suspects will be charged.

Meanwhile, officers with the New York City Sheriff's Office are performing sweeps of more than 90 retailers.

CBS2 has reported for months about strung out K2 users flooding the streets in Harlem, passing out on sidewalks, smoking on street corners, and being carted off by EMTs.

"I was here when there was a crack epidemic, when crack and all that stuff came out. This is worse!" Harlem resident Iishea Stone told CBS2's Jessica Schneider.

City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito is working to introduce a bill that would make peddling K2 a crime punishable by up to a year in jail, Schneider reported.

In the meantime, Bharara is warning people to stay away from synthetic marijuana.

"This stuff is not marijuana. It can produce severe and sometimes lethal effects," he said.

(TM and © Copyright 2015 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2015 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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