You don’t know what’s in them, and you certainly don’t know where they originated from. But that hasn’t stopped the growth of the synthetic drug trade. The total international drug trade is now the most lucrative illicit business in the world, generating $400 billion annually, according the U.N. world drug report.
The trade in synthetic drugs is a growing part of the overall problem.
Behind it all may be a link to international crime and terror organizations – a global “Super ‘High’ Way” – attracted by the big money to be made. But the beast comes back to feed on the streets of America and other nations around the world.
Synthetic drugs are marketed towards teens and young adults as herbal incense or bath salts, and under names like “The Joker,” “Scooby Doo,” “Blaze,” and “Red X Dawn”. ”Legal highs”, as they’re also called, are powerful and often deadly.
At a news conference on synthetic drugs last year, James Capra, U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) chief of operations said “They cause acute psychosis, which causes people to do incredible harm to themselves and to others and there’s been plenty of reports of what’s happening from young men and women committing suicide, to people running into the street, to people attacking other people saying they see things…it’s a horrible drug. You see, these organizations do not care about life. They don’t care about liberty. They don’t care about the rule of law. What they care about is lining their pockets with cash on the backs of our young people.”
According to ABC News, Capra pointed to recent medical statistics to show the damage synthetic drugs can cause. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) reported 11,406 emergency department visits involving a synthetic cannabinoid product during 2010. Just a year later, in 2011, emergency room visits involving the same product had increased 2.5 times to 28,531.
One of the main problems in outlawing synthetic narcotics is dealers staying ahead of the chemical game and keeping their drugs legal.
“As soon as we make these things illegal, criminal organizations will go back and change one molecule–one molecule and it changes the entire drug. It changes the whole structure of the drug, so the drug becomes legal and we’re at it again,” said Capra. “And that’s the dynamic of what we’re faced with. At the end of the day these drug dollars are going to places where they don’t like us very much. That’s not good.”
Synthetic drugs are generally dried plant matter that have been sprayed or infused with a mixture of chemicals. They are easily changed to produce multiple generations of the same drug. They don’t fall under the umbrella of the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs or the 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances. This means they are technically legal. They are accessible, not easily detectable in drug tests, and there is a perception among users that they’re safe since they are sold legally. Yet, those who smoke synthetic pot have a 30-times greater risk of hospitalization compared to natural marijuana.
For international criminals and terrorists, the synthetic drug market in the West is a lucrative target. Millions of dollars are finding their way to terror groups in the Middle East from the sale of synthetic drugs like “K-2” and “Spice” in the United States, according to DEA officials.
“The bad guys need money to operate, to buy explosives, to buy weapons, to come after this country, and these designer drugs are generating millions and millions of dollars,” said Derek Maltz of the DEA.
In December 2012, the DEA began addressing the synthetic drug problem with “Project Synergy,” which, in 2014, seized one warehouse in Alabama that had sent more than $40 million in profits from synthetic drugs to Yemen.
“Millions of dollars flowing into Yemen? They’re not buying Girl Scout cookies,” said Maltz.
Project Synergy has produced 377 arrests, seized more than $80 million in cash and assets and hundreds of thousands packages of synthetic drugs since 2012.