DEA, local law enforcement target synthetic drugs in nationwide operation

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By Catherine Holland By Catherine Holland

PHOENIX -- In a first-of-its-kind crackdown, the Drug Enforcement Administration sent a message to the synthetic designer drug industry -- we're coming for you.

In partnership with Immigrations and Customs Enforcement and with the help of dozens of law-enforcement agencies at the federal, state and local levels, the DEA launched Operation Log Jam Wednesday.

Agents and officers fanned out in 109 cities, including Phoenix, to go after manufacturers, wholesalers and retailers of synthetic drugs like bath salts, K2 and Spice.

The nationwide takedown resulted in the seizure of 19 million packets of synthetic drugs and $36 million in cash.

Seven people were arrested in the Phoenix metro area as part of Operation Log Jam. They have been identified as Clinton Strunk, 42, of Mesa; Michael Lane, 51, of Cave Creek; Andrew Freeman, 25, of Tempe; Nicholas Zizzo, 25, of Phoenix; and Joshua Lowenstein, 25, of Phoenix.  Two of the others have not been identified publicly, pending the ongoing investigation.

The operation was the first-ever national law enforcement offensive against the manufacturers of what has been infamously nicknamed "the synthetic designer drug industry."  Locally, it was the first step in what is expected to garner numerous more arrests and seizures.

If convicted, these men could each face maximum penalties of 20 years in prison, a $1 million fine or both.  Unlike state penal systems, in which inmates can be paroled significantly early, federal convicts serve almost their entire sentence.

One of the biggest issues with synthetic drugs is that new variants are developed almost faster than current ones are banned.

"What's so dangerous about these, quite frankly, is that there are so many of them," explained Shelly Mowrey of Partnership for a Drug-Free America's Arizona affiliate. "The minute that you ban some of these synthetic drugs, another one pops up."

Earlier this month, President Barack Obama signed a law banning the sale, production and possession of more than two dozen different synthetic drugs, referred to collectively as bath salts.

Those two dozen drugs, however, are just the tip of the iceberg.

"The moment you start to regulate one of them, they'll come out with a variant that sometimes is even more potent," said Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

"We're just constantly trying to keep up with the number of different synthetic drugs that are out there because it's infinite right now," Mowrey said.

While that makes it difficult for law-enforcement agencies to crack down, Operation Log Jam is a step in the right direction.

“Together with our federal, state and local law enforcement partners, we are committed to targeting these new and emerging drugs with every scientific, legislative, and investigative tool at our disposal," DEA Administrator Michele M. Leonhart said in a news release.

The relative popularity of synthetic drugs comes from easy access -- they're sold in various retail outlets, head shops and online -- and the fact that they don't show up on traditional drug screens.

Synthetic drugs, which are designed to mimic marijuana, cocaine, LSD and meth, are not approved by the Food and Drug Administration for human consumption, and the packaging is often so marked.

In 2010, poison centers nationwide responded to about 3,200 calls related to synthetic Spice and bath salts, according to the DEA. In 2011, that number jumped to more than 13,000 calls. Sixty percent of the cases involved patients 25 and younger.