FARMINGTON — Federal agents and local law enforcement raided four San Juan County smoke shops and the owner's home early Wednesday morning.
The raid targeted synthetic marijuana, or "spice."
The product has been sold at several smoke shops in San Juan County. Marketed as incense, the drug is any type of dried, green leafy plants that are sprayed with chemicals that produce a high-like trance when smoked, said Neil Haws, the director of the Region II Narcotics Task Force.
It has been difficult for local law enforcement to prosecute people for selling spice because it is sold with a label that says "not for human consumption." The suppliers of the drug are constantly tweaking its chemical properties to try to avoid ordinances and laws. And local law enforcement officers don't have a quick and readily available test to determine if there are illegal chemicals in the drug, Haws said.
The raid on Wednesday was the result of an 18-month investigation into local smoke shops by the narcotics task force and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
"The community was complaining. Parents were writing letters to the sheriff, the city of Farmington was getting complaints," Haws said. "It's become a huge problem, mostly among young people. It was the new thing. A lot of people were doing it and there was a lot of concern."
Police confiscated synthetic marijuana, cash, vehicles and guns during the raid and arrested at least one San Juan County man, who was the owner of all four businesses that were raided, Haws said. He did not release the man's name Wednesday.
The raid "will definitely have a benefit to our community," said Jeff Browning, a Region II Narcotics Task Force Agent. "We were seeing that every morning people were waiting for the stores to open."
Details of what criminal charges will be filed in connection were not available on Wednesday.
Law enforcement officers were serving a federal warrant during Wednesday's raid. The U.S. Attorneys Office will release the warrant and DEA officials will announce details of what was confiscated in the raid and who was arrested on Thursday during an afternoon press conference in Albuquerque, a DEA spokesman said.
Shortly after 6 a.m. on Wednesday, FBI and DEA agents, Farmington police, sheriff's office deputies, Region II Narcotics Task Force agents and U.S. Marshals simultaneously raided the four businesses and a Farmington home.
Law enforcement searched Rollet Smoke Shop, 1010 N.M. Highway 516, Rollet 2, 4276 U.S. Highway 64, UPN Smoke, 5645 U.S. Highway 64, and VIP Smokeshop, 4225 U.S. Highway 64.
State documents list Mohammed Assi as organizer of Rollet Smoke Shop LLC.
Assi was the targeted by an anti-drug task force investigation in Durango, Colo., where he worked at his family's Downtown Smoke Shop, according to a 2011 Durango Herald story.
At Rollet on Wednesday, the police presence discouraged several potential smoke shop customers who parked in the parking lot and then drove away when they saw FBI and DEA agents inside the business. A few approached the officers and asked if they could shop at the store.
"Where can we buy shisha? We tried the other one and they had DEA agents there," Dustin Rice, a 19-year-old Aztec man, said when he was turned away from Rollet by law enforcement on Wednesday morning. He said he was trying to purchase shisha, a flavored tobacco often smoked out of a hookah.
"It's flavored tobacco. If that's illegal, there's something wrong with the world," he said.
More than 11 percent of high school seniors nationwide reported using synthetic marijuana in the past year, according to a 2011 "Monitoring the Future" survey of youth drug-use trends.
Dr. Eric Ketcham, the medical director of the emergency room at San Juan Regional Medical, said there has been a sharp increase in recent years of patients acting psychotic or agitated at the hospital. He said that increase may be related to increase in spice and other synthetic drug use in the area.
He said one side effect of spice is seizures.
In addition to the health risks, police said synthetic marijuana stores may attract criminal behavior. Employees at the Rollet on N.M. 516 has been robbed of spice at gunpoint three times since late March.
"Regional Distribution of synthetic cannabinoids has seen an exponential increase in recent years," Farmington police Chief Kyle Westall said in prepared statement. "Without the help of the DEA it would have been impossible for us to inhibit the flow of these dangerous drugs."Ryan Boetel covers crime for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4644 and firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @rboetel on Twitter.