FARMINGTON — Law enforcement officials on Thursday announced the results of a nationwide crackdown on businesses selling "synthetic marijuana" that included raids on four San Juan County smoke shops.
In New Mexico alone, officials confiscated 100,000 retail packets of spice, 15 pounds of bulk spice, more than $1.2 million from bank and savings accounts, $135,000 in cash, 18 vehicles and 13 firearms during the Wednesday raids, according to a U.S. Attorneys Office news release.
Four New Mexico residents were arrested on suspicion of trafficking spice. Mohammed Assi, a 26-year-old Farmington man, was arrested on suspicion of conspiracy to distribute a controlled substance analogue. Mohammed Assi was the owner of four San Juan County smoke shops that were raided for allegedly selling spice.
Khaled Assi, 39, and Nael Assi, 41, who live in Gallup, and Amro Assi, who lives in Grants, were also arrested and charged with the same crime. Khaled Assi was charged with an additional drug-trafficking offense.
Each of the defendants is facing a maximum 20-year prison sentence, according to the U.S. Attorneys Office. Mohammed Assi was the only U.S. citizen. The other men were living in the country on legal visas.
Synthetic marijuana and other synthetic drugs are illegal but they have been sold at retail businesses because its hard for law enforcement to prosecute people who sell the drugs because the chemicals they contain are constantly being tweaked by producers to avoid ordinances and laws.
Law enforcement on Wednesday relied on Drug Enforcement Administration tests on the substances which showed they were close enough to controlled substances that they are illegal to sell, according to the U.S. Attorneys Office.
In San Juan County, Region II Narcotics Task Force and DEA agents went undercover over the last 18 months to purchase spice from local smoke shops. The products were then tested by the DEA and were found to be close enough to banned substances that they were illegal, said Neal Haws, the director of the Region II Narcotics Task Force.
Federal agents and local law enforcement raided 15 New Mexico business and executed search warrants at six residence in Albuquerque, three residences in Gallup, two residences in Farmington and one residence in Grants. They also seized control of 21 checking accounts and a savings account.
The DEA said Wednesday's enforcement project -- which was part of "Project Synergy" -- led to more than 150 arrests. Law enforcement officials executed 375 search warrants in 35 states, 49 cities and five countries.
The New Mexico code name for the project was "Operation Old Spice, New Money" and targeted synthetic marijuana distributors in San Juan, Cibola, McKinley and Bernalillo counties.
Region II Narcotics Agent Jeff Browning said the raid will hopefully result in a significant decrease in the drug's prevalence in San Juan County.
Synthetic marijuana products "are the latest dangerous designer drugs to reach our neighborhoods," U.S. Attorney Kenneth Gonzales said in a prepared statement. "These products have proven to be a public health hazard with serious and sometimes deadly consequences. It is imperative that everyone, especially unwary young people, realize that spice is not for sport, and we will prosecute those who know the dangers but push it for profit behind the facade of a legitimate business."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.