Feds crack down on synthetic pot, bath salts

Synthetic pot and bath salts — two designer drugs so new their effects aren't fully understood and their formulations can't be fully outlawed — were the focus of a national law enforcement crackdown this week that saw four locations in Atlanta raided and four people arrested.

The size and scope of the 30-state effort, dubbed Operation Log Jam and coordinated by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, underscored the fact that law enforcement officials see synthetic designer drugs as a significant and growing threat, especially to young people who perceive them as safe because they can buy them legally in stores.

The law enforcement and health communities have been especially troubled by these designer drug cocktails because the effects on users are dangerous and unpredictable.

Marketed with catchy names such as Ivory Wave, Purple Wave, Vanilla Sky and Bliss, these products come in hundreds of different chemical formulations that have never been tested for safety or studied for their long-term effects, said GBI chemistry section manager Nelly Miles. The chemical compounds are designed to mimic the effects of illicit drugs like cocaine, LSD, MDMA or methamphetamine.

Users have reported side-effects such as short-term coma, seizures, hallucinations and even psychosis.

Locally, several deaths have been attributed to synthetic pot. Among them are Peachtree City teen Chase Burnett, who drowned in his hot tub in March after smoking it; Kelvin Melton, 26, of Athens, who died in February of a heart condition brought on by frequent use; and Dakota Dyer, 14, of Bremen, who shot himself in March while high on the drug.

Roswell-based Nutragenomics Manufacturing and a rental warehouse in Chamblee were two of the metro Atlanta sites searched Wednesday by federal and local law enforcement officers, said Harry S. Sommers, special agent in charge of the DEA Atlanta office. The other two locations in Georgia were not disclosed.

DeKalb County District Attorney Robert James said he would prosecute the four individuals arrested, although he did not immediately identify them or the charges they would face.

The local searches were among 90 sites raided as part of the first ever nationwide attempt to target synthetic drug distributors. All totaled, the operation garnered 90 arrests and resulted in the seizure of 4.8 million packets of synthetic marijuana (also known as K2 or Spice) and 167,000 packets of synthetic cathinones (drugs that mimic Ecstacy or meth and are sometimes marketed as bath salts or plant food).

At a news conference Thursday in Atlanta, DEA officials displayed more than a dozen 50-pound sacks of synthetic pot in various stages of production that were stacked against each other like sacks of white flour. Also displayed were small concrete mixers about the size of a whiskey barrel that were used to process the drugs, and several tabletop machines used to seal small foil packets that synthetic pot is packaged in. Most of the items were seized at the Chamblee warehouse.

Sommers said local authorities confiscated a total of 100 pounds of synthetic marijuana and another 1,500 pounds of plant materials that would have been worth about $10 million if they had gone to market. The products are sold in adult novelty shops, convenience stores and smoke shops.

It appeared the products were intended for distribution even beyond Georgia, Sommers said.

Georgia lawmakers this year outlawed the known chemical formulas for synthetic marijuana, but manufacturers have managed to stay a step ahead by constantly tweaking the recipe.

The Georgia Pharmacy Board in June made an emergency decision classifying altered compounds of synthetic marijuana as Schedule I substances, giving law enforcement the authority to seize it. However, the state is in something of a legal limbo because while it's illegal to manufacture, sell or possess the new formulations, there are no criminal penalties under the current law for doing so.

The General Assembly is expected to address that loophole when it convenes in January.

In the meantime, the GBI has acted swiftly to try and interrupt the supply, serving search warrants at five locations besides Nutragenomics in just the past month: Guci Herbal facilities in Ellijay, Marietta and Kennesaw; and at Omerta Labs/Lunar Labs/WG Distribution centers in Marietta and Atlanta.

Agents seized documents and carted away drugs when they found them to be tested at the agency's lab, GBI spokesman John Bankhead said.

After Wednesday's GBI raid at Nutragenomics Manufacturing in Roswell, the agency called the company "a major national distributor of the synthetic cannabinoids." Documents were seized at the facility, but no one was arrested.

Stuart Mones, a lawyer for Nutragenomics, declined to comment when reached Thursday.

WHAT ARE SYNTHETIC POT AND BATH SALTS?

Synthetic cannabinoids (synthetic marijuana) — A designer drug made by spraying chemicals containing THC, the psychoactive property in marijuana, onto dried plant material that is later smoked by users. It is sometimes marketed as incense or potpourri.

Synthetic cathinones (bath salts) — A designer drug that comes in a powdery form and mimics the effects of ecstacy, methamphetamine or cocaine. They are sometimes marketed as plant food. Users will snort, smoke or inject them.

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