WASHINGTON -- The Drug Enforcement Administration is trying to stay one step ahead of synthetic drug makers, wholesalers and retailers as it broadens its crackdown on the growing black market product.
DEA agents fanned out across the country Wednesday and made more 150 arrests and served about 200 warrants, including in Illinois, DEA spokesman Rusty Payne said. The largest single operation was a statewide effort in Alabama, though agents also were active in 29 states in all. Authorities seized more than $20 million in cash and assets, the DEA said.
The Treasury Department announced the first financial sanctions against people accused of dealing in synthetic drugs. The government formally sanctioned four people it identified as Daniel Maurice Louie, Kevin Kim Louie and Francine Denise Louie -- all of Canada -- and Tramayne Primus from Barbados.
The group did not immediately respond to a request for comment submitted on one of their company websites.
The government's decision to identify and sanction the four, along with four foreign companies that authorities said were used to buy and sell significant quantities of the chemicals used in many popular synthetic drugs, mean U.S. citizens cannot do business with them. The Office of Foreign Assets Control designation under the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act also allows the government to seize U.S. assets tied to the group and the companies.
The Kingpin Act is a tool typically reserved for some of the most serious players in the international drug trade, including the likes of Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman Loera, formerly the head of Mexico's powerful and ruthless Sinaloa Cartel.
The DEA has been cracking down on synthetic drugs, including Spice, Molly and so-called bath salts, since the drugs first gained widespread popularity years ago.
In late 2010, the agency responsible for enforcing federal drug laws moved to ban five chemicals used to make synthetic marijuana blends, including K2, Spice and Blaze. Since then, drug manufacturers have continued to modify their formulas and develop new chemical mixtures. And every time a new drug is identified by the government, foreign chemists are ready with a slightly modified version often with a new brand name, Ferdinand Large, staff coordinator for DEA's Special Operations Division, said.
"It's an unbelievable amount of resources that these illicit chemists are putting into this," he added.
Large said the agency was now broadly focused on Chinese chemical manufacturers and the distributors, wholesalers and retailers in the United States.
One of the companies sanctioned by the Treasury Department is a Chinese pharmaceutical company accused of supplying chemicals needed to make the drugs.
There is also growing concern about where the money is going.
Investigators have tracked hundreds of millions of dollars in drug proceeds being sent to Yemen, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, Large said.
"The money is going there. Where it stops we don't know," Large said. Large said it also was unclear which criminal organizations may be profiting from the drug proceeds.
U.S. authorities long have worried about criminal and terrorist groups in the Middle East using drug trafficking to finance illicit activities.
In a November 2013 report on transnational organized crime, DEA Administrator Michele Leonhart said, "Drug trafficking organizations and terror networks are joined at the hip in many parts of the world.
"DEA must relentlessly pursue these dangerous individuals and criminal groups that attempt to use drug trafficking profits to fuel and fund terror networks, such as Hezbollah," Leonhart said.
Payne said Wednesday's crackdown was focused strictly on U.S. targets and involved 66 DEA cases, seven investigations led by Immigration and Customs Enforcement special agents and several others led by Customs and Border Protection that focused on express consignment shipments.
In Alabama, federal and local authorities made 30 arrests around the state and seized 200 pounds of drugs, 19 guns and about $500,000 in cash.
"Spice is an emerging and dangerous designer drug that is destroying lives," Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley said as he stood next to a table filled with some of the drugs seized Wednesday. Many of the small packets had pictures of cartoonish characters with names like "Bling Bling Monkey."
Earlier this year Alabama lawmakers passed a bill designed to target drugs with formulas based on chemical mixtures previously identified and banned by the federal government. It allows law enforcement to make arrests if they can prove the substance is chemically similar to the banned compound and designed to have a similar high-inducing effect.
Last year, the DEA and Customs and Border Protection wrapped up a 7-month investigation that ended in 150 arrests and the seizure of about a ton of drugs.
Besides Alabama, Wednesday's raids took place in Alaska, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Washington, West Virginia and Wisconsin.