US synthetic-drug bust nets vast stash; more than 150 arrested

WASHINGTON (AFP) - Hundreds of thousands of individually packaged, ready-to-sell synthetic drugs and their ingredients were seized in 29 US states on Wednesday as part of a major bust that also netted US$20 million (S$25 million) in cash and assets.

Law enforcement agencies made more than 150 arrests over the course of the wide-ranging sweep, part of a crackdown on designer synthetic drugs by the US Drug Enforcement Administration.

"Many who manufacture, distribute and sell these dangerous synthetic drugs found out first hand today that DEA will target, find and prosecute those who have committed these crimes," said DEA administrator Michele Leonhart.

The synthetic drugs seized under the DEA's "Project Synergy" operation are part of a swelling group of illicit compounds that traffickers have begun marketing in the West in recent years as herbal incense, bath salts, jewellery cleaner or plant food, a statement by the DEA said.

Use of the substances cause "vomiting, anxiety, agitation, irritability, seizures, hallucinations, tachycardia (a faster than normal resting heart rate), elevated blood pressure and loss of consciousness," as well as significant organ damage and overdose deaths, it added.

US health officials reported that in 2011 alone synthetic products resembling marijuana were responsible for 28,531 emergency room visits, a rate 2.5 times higher than the year before.

The synthetic products "have become increasingly popular, particularly among teens and young adults and those who mistakenly believe they can bypass the drug testing protocols of employers and government agencies," the DEA said.

The first phase of the operation, which began in December 2012, resulted in more than 227 arrests across 35 states and five countries.

Authorities seized US$60 million in cash and assets and nearly 10,000 kilos of individually packaged drugs.

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