A week after more than 100 people in Texas fell ill from synthetic cannabis, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency has arrested at least 150 people in a 29-state sweep to combat the use of substances that mimic the highs of marijuana, methamphetamine or LSD.
Although not always marketed as drugs, products such as K2, Spice, Molly and Purple Wave have come under increasing scrutiny because of their popularity among teenagers and young adults. The DEA considers the synthetics illegal and dangerous, though the industry has tried to skirt the rules and challenge prosecutions by making minor ingredient changes and labeling the goods as "not for human use."
Police and hospitals in Texas have said that a bad batch of K2 may have contributed to overdoses that required hospitals to treat more than 100 people in the first few days of May, mainly in Austin and Dallas. Sale of K2 is illegal under Texas state law.
"There's a cluster of people with severe anxiety, some with seizures, that could be because of synthetic cannaboids," Dr. Miguel Fernandez, director of South Texas Poison Center, told the Los Angeles Times. "I would caution people not to use them because they are not like typical marijuana."
The DEA's effort on Wednesday, which stretched from California to Florida, involved the seizure of more than $20 million in cash and products. The DEA said hundreds of thousands of individual packets of ready-to-sell synthetic drugs were hauled off.
It was the second phase of an ongoing crackdown, the agency said. Last year, federal agents arrested at least 227 people and seized $60 million in cash and assets, including the equivalent of about 3 million single-use packets of K2.
Many of the ingredients are made at low costs in Chinese labs that take online orders. Some of Wednesday's seizures took place at package screening locations at U.S. borders.
In other cities, authorities targeted businesses, such as an Orlando, Fla., jewelry shop.
At an afternoon news conference in Denver on Wednesday, Aurora Police Chief Dan Oates said his department joined the sweep after a 15-year-old boy died last summer because of synthetic marijuana poisoning. He had vial of a product called Monkey Spice next to his bed, Oates said.
Authorities raided 10 locations in Aurora, including a jewelry shop and some corner markets. Though no Spice was found, several people were arrested.
The DEA has said some of the money from synthetic drug sales is being sent to the Middle East, including Yemen, Syria and Lebanon. And some of the products are marketed as jewelry cleaners or even "plant food," the agency noted in a news release.
"Many who manufacture, distribute and sell these dangerous synthetic drugs found out firsthand today that DEA will target, find and prosecute those who have committed these crimes," DEA Administrator Michele Leonhart said in the statement.
The imitiator drugs usually produce the same effects as their more well-known counterparts such as MDMA or cocaine. They can cause vomiting, hallucinations and high blood pressure.