KIRTLAND — A month after police and federal agents raided four local smoke shops, two of the businesses haven't reopened and the other shops no longer sell synthetic drugs, including a drug called "spice."
The father of one of the men arrested during the raid said his family was discriminated against and would have stopped selling the targeted products if asked.
On June 26, law enforcement officers all over the country raided smoke shops that sold synthetic drugs, such as "spice," which is referred to as synthetic marijuana.
Marketed as incense or potpourri and displaying a label that says "not for human consumption", synthetic marijuana is any type of dried, green leafy plant sprayed with chemicals to produce a high-like trance when smoked, said Neil Haws, Region II Narcotics Task Force director.
In New Mexico, agents raided 13 smoke shops and confiscated 100,000 packets of synthetic marijuana and seized weapons, vehicles and $1.2 million from bank accounts associated with the synthetic drug trade. They also arrested four cousins and accused the men of felony drug-trafficking charges, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of New Mexico.
In San Juan County, FBI and DEA agents along with local law enforcement searched Rollet Smoke Shop, 1010 N.M. Highway 516, Rollet Smoke Shop 2, 4276 U.S. Highway 64, Up N Smoke, 5645 U.S. Highway 64 and VIP Smoke Shop 4225, U.S. Highway 64.
The Rollets have reopened and the other two smoke shops are closed. It appears that all local businesses have stopped selling synthetic drugs, Haws said.
"I think it sent a message to others that either were selling or thinking about selling (synthetic drugs) that we are going to come around pretty hard on them," Haws said. "It doesn't hurt my feelings that they are not in business anymore."
Four men were arrested in New Mexico in connection to the raids.
Mohammed Assi, a 26-year-old Farmington man, was arrested for suspicion of conspiracy to distribute a "controlled substance analogue." 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, according to the U.S. Attorneys Office for the District of New Mexico.
The men are cousins who are originally from a Palestinian city in the West Bank, said Jay Assi, Mohammed Assi's father.
All of the men are in federal custody. Douglas Couleur, Mohammed Assi's attorney, declined to comment on the charges.
All of the men are facing up to 20 years in prison if convicted, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office.
Jay Assi said there are other smoke shops in San Juan County and New Mexico that sell spice and it was discrimination that lead police to his business and home last month.
"Suddenly they said we were drug dealers, that's not fair," Jay Assi said. "There is no clear law about potpourri. ... The DEA should have warned us."
Jay Assi said police raided his home at 5 a.m. and damaged his property.
"They handcuffed everyone for three or four hours, even the women," he said. "They did not like us. They damaged our home and property and were unprofessional."
Jay Assi said Khaled Assi owned the four smoke shops that were raided and Mohammed Assi was a manager.
The Rollet and Rollet 2 stores have large signs on their doors saying they don't sell "potpourri."
"I'm not saying names, but other businesses are still selling it," Jay Assi said of synthetic drugs. "I don't know if it's allowed or not allowed. It isn't clear."
The Rollet smoke shops still sell tobacco, electronic cigarettes and glass smoking pipes that are legal unless they are used to smoke marijuana or another illegal drug, at which point they become drug paraphernalia.
Spice had been sold at Rollets, VIP and Up N smoke shops in San Juan County. It's not clear if other tobacco-type businesses in San Juan County have ever sold synthetic drugs.
Prosecuting suspected synthetic-drug dealers was difficult for local law enforcement because there wasn't a readily available way to test the substance for proof it was illegal. And designers of the drug were frequently tweaking chemical properties to avoid laws and ordinances, Haws said.
Last months' arrests and seizures were the end of an 18-month investigation where undercover agents purchased synthetic drugs and DEA labs proved they were illegal, Haws said.
Since the raids "we've looked at other places and haven't found anyone selling" synthetic drugs, Haws said. "I think it's a big positive for the community."
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.