DEA Arrests at Least 150 People in Synthetic Drug Operation in 29 States

The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) announced Wednesday it conducted a major crackdown on synthetic drugs that involved the arrest of at least 150 people in 29 states, and the seizure of more than $20 million in products and cash. Hundreds of thousands of packets of synthetic drugs were seized.

The operation comes a week after more than 100 people in Texas became ill from synthetic marijuana, the Los Angeles Times reports. “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 newspaper. “I would caution people not to use them because they are not like typical marijuana.”

Law enforcement officials and prosecutors have found it difficult to win convictions against makers of synthetic drugs, who are constantly changing the chemistry of the products to stay one step ahead of the law. In order to convict a synthetic drug maker, officials must prove the person sold the drug, and that the drug was substantially similar to a specifically banned substance. All a drug maker has to do is make small chemical changes to the products so they are not considered “analogues,” or chemical compounds that are similar to banned drugs.

Last year, the DEA and authorities in three other countries announced the arrests of dozens of people involved in trafficking designer drugs such as bath salts and synthetic marijuana. In the United States, the enforcement operations took place in 49 cities, and targeted retailers, wholesalers and manufacturers. The operations included more than 150 arrest warrants and almost 375 search warrants.

In 2013, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reported 29,000 emergency department visits nationwide in 2011 resulting from use of synthetic marijuana, up from 11,000 in 2010.


States Consider Synthetic Drug Bans, Opioid Education for Doctors and Marijuana Laws

A number of state legislatures are considering bills banning synthetic drugs, requiring education for doctors who prescribe opioids, and expanding the use of the drug overdose antidote naloxone this session.

Sherry Green, the CEO of the National Alliance for Model State Drug Laws (NAMSDL), says she is also seeing many state measures devoted to marijuana legislation, and bills that would require doctors and pharmacists to use state prescription monitoring databases.

“We’re seeing bills that ban synthetic marijuana, bath salts and other synthetic drugs by banning classes of substances, with specific examples of the chemical formulations of drugs that would fall into that category,” Green says. “In the past, states tried to ban specific chemical formulations, and drug makers would get around the ban simply by changing a molecule. Under these new measures, if something else in that class is created after the law takes effect, it would already be banned.”

Last fall, NAMSDL organized a meeting of health officials, law enforcement, doctors, state drug directors and others trying to stop the spread of synthetic drugs. NAMSDL has been working with the experts at the meeting to draft model legislation that will be part of a toolbox of legislative options states can use this year.

Some states are considering bills that would require education for opioid prescribers in pain management, addiction treatment and proper prescribing of controlled substances. In addition, some states want to limit the supply of certain controlled substances that doctors can prescribe for pain management. New Jersey and Pennsylvania are among the states that have established task forces on opioids, to take a closer look at how to deal with prescription drug abuse and diversion.

Other topics trending in statehouses around the nation include:

  • Prescription monitoring programs (PMPs): Some proposed measures require doctors and/or pharmacists to use the databases to spot patients who are “doctor shopping” for multiple prescriptions. Several states are considering bills that would allow a staff person in a doctor’s office to gather information about patients from the database, to save the doctor time.
  • Marijuana legalization: Green anticipates seeing many more bills that would legalize medical marijuana, as well as legislation that would legalize recreational marijuana.
  • Naloxone: States are introducing and refining legislation that would allow expanded use of the overdose antidote naloxone. “Some states want to expand who can administer naloxone beyond first responders, to include family members of people who abuse opioids. This requires rewriting laws to allow a prescription for naloxone to be written not for the patient, but for the patient’s parents, even if the patient is an adult,” Green says.
  • Good Samaritan laws: These laws grant limited immunity to people who seek help for someone who has overdosed. “States are looking at who should get immunity, and whether Good Samaritans should be shielded from both criminal and civil liability,” Green notes.


DEA Continues to Act Against Synthetic Drugs

April 12, 2013  Contact: DEA Public Affairs  (202) 307-7977

DEA Continues to Act Against Synthetic Drugs

Agency Targets Four Substances Used to Make So-Called “Fake Pot” and “Bath Salts”

APR 12 (WASHINGTON)  –Today the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) published a Final Rule to permanently control 3,4-methylenedioxy-N-methylcathinone (methylone) and a Notice of Intent to temporarily schedule three synthetic cannabinoids.

The first of two notices published in the Federal Register this morning is a Final Rule permanently placing methylone, a synthetic stimulant drug that has been encountered in falsely marketed “bath salt” products, into Schedule I under the Controlled Substances Act,  the most restrictive category that is reserved for unsafe, highly abused substances with no accepted medical use.  Methylone is abused by individuals for its psychoactive effects, and this abuse has had an adverse effect on public health and safety, including death.   DEA temporarily scheduled methylone on October 21, 2011 upon finding it posed an imminent hazard to public safety.  In addition the United States Department of Health and Human Services concluded that it should be controlled.   On October 17, 2012, DEA proposed to make its Schedule I status permanent, taking steps that conclude with today’s Final Rule.

Over the past two years, synthetic stimulants sold under the guise of “bath salts” or “plant food” has become increasingly popular, particularly among teens and young adults, and is sold at a variety of retail outlets and over the Internet.  However, they have not been approved by the FDA for human consumption or for medical use.  Marketed under names such as “Ivory Wave”, “Purple Wave”, “Vanilla Sky” or “Bliss,” these products are comprised of substances perceived as mimics of cocaine, LSD, MDMA, and/or methamphetamine.  Users have reported impaired perception, reduced motor control, disorientation, extreme paranoia, and violent episodes. The long-term physical and psychological effects of these substances and their associated products are unknown but potentially severe.

The second Federal Register Notice published today is a Notice of Intent to temporarily control three synthetic cannabinoids (UR-144, XLR11, and AKB48) often seen in falsely marketed “herbal incense” products.   DEA has taken action upon finding these three substances pose an imminent hazard to public safety.  This action will become effective upon publishing a Final Order to temporarily control these substances as Schedule I substances for up to two years, with the possibility of a one-year extension.

Over the past three years, smoke-able herbal blends are marketed under the guise of being “legal” and have become increasingly popular, particularly among teens and young adults.  These products consist of plant material that has been laced with a substance that mimics THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, and are sold at a variety of retail outlets, in head shops and over the Internet.  These substances have not been approved by the FDA for human consumption or for medical use.   The long-term physical and psychological effects of these substances and their associated products are unknown but potentially severe.

Spice (Synthetic Marijuana)


“Spice” refers to a wide variety of herbal mixtures that produce experiences similar to marijuana (cannabis) and that are marketed as “safe,” legal alternatives to that drug. Sold under many names, including K2, fake weed, Yucatan Fire, Skunk, Moon Rocks, and others — and labeled “not for human consumption” — these products contain dried, shredded plant material and chemical additives that are responsible for their psychoactive (mind-altering) effects.

False Advertising
Labels on Spice products often claim that they contain “natural” psycho-active material taken from a variety of plants. Spice products do contain dried plant material, but chemical analyses show that their active ingredients are synthetic (or designer) cannabinoid compounds.

For several years, Spice mixtures have been easy to purchase in head shops and gas stations and via the Internet. Be-cause the chemicals used in Spice have a high potential for abuse and no medical benefit, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has designated the five active chemicals most frequently found in Spice as Schedule I controlled substances, making it illegal to sell, buy, or possess them. Manufacturers of Spice products attempt to evade these legal restrictions by substituting different chemicals in their mixtures, while the DEA continues to monitor the situation and evaluate the need for updating the list of banned cannabinoids.
Spice products are popular among young people; of the illicit drugs most used by high-school seniors, they are second only to marijuana. (They are more popular among boys than girls — in 2012, nearly twice as many male 12th graders reported past-year use of synthetic marijuana as females in the same age group.) Easy access and the misperception that Spice products are “natural” and therefore harmless have likely contributed to their popularity. Another selling point is that the chemicals used in Spice are not easily detected in standard drug tests.

How Is Spice Abused?
Some Spice products are sold as “incense,” but they more closely resemble potpourri. Like marijuana, Spice is abused mainly by smoking. Sometimes Spice is mixed with marijuana or is prepared as an herbal infusion for drinking.

K2, a popular brand of “Spice” mixture.

How Does Spice Affect the Brain?
Spice users report experiences similar to those produced by marijuana—elevated mood, relaxation, and altered perception—and in some cases the effects are even stronger than those of marijuana. Some users report psychotic effects like extreme anxiety, paranoia, and hallucinations.
So far, there have been no scientific studies of Spice’s effects on the human brain, but we do know that the cannabinoid compounds found in Spice products act on the same cell receptors as THC, the primary psychoactive component of marijuana. Some of the compounds found in Spice, however, bind more strongly to those receptors, which could lead to a much more powerful and unpredictable effect. Because the chemical composition of many products sold as Spice is unknown, it is likely that some varieties also contain substances that could cause dramatically different effects than the user might expect.

What Are the Other Health Effects of Spice?
Spice abusers who have been taken to Poison Control Centers report symptoms that include rapid heart rate, vomiting, agitation, confusion, and hallucinations. Spice can also raise blood pressure and cause reduced blood supply to the heart (myocardial ischemia), and in a few cases it has been associated with heart attacks. Regular users may experience withdrawal and


We still do not know all the ways Spice may affect human health or how toxic it may be, but one public health concern is that there may be harmful heavy metal residues in Spice mixtures. Without further analyses, it is difficult to determine whether this concern is justified.

Learn More
For more information on Spice, see—%20final%20version.pdf (PDF, 253KB)

Publication InformationJanuary 1 2011
Revision Date:

December 18 2012

Provides information about spice, a family of herbal mixtures that produce effects similar to that of marijuana, including how it is used, potential health effects, and public health concerns.

PDF Version:



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