A Cambodian man pleaded not guilty today to charges that he sold illegal synthetic drugs from his Prichard convenience store. It is the latest development in a massive crackdown against synthetic drugs across the country.Thy Touch, 40, of Mobile, pleaded not guilty to conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute synthetic marijuana and maintaining drug-involved premises. He is one of three people charged in Mobile’s federal court as part of “Project Synergy.”The Drug Enforcement Administration, Homeland Security Investigations and U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents last month raided more than 300 addresses and obtained 150 arrest warrants in 35 states. Federal authorities have said they are targeting the “upper echelon of designer synthetic drug trafficking organizations,” seizing 550 kilograms of synthetic drugs, bringing the total seized since February to more than 1,000 kilograms.Homeland Security officials said the investigation, which began in December, has uncovered a “massive flow” of drug-related proceeds to several countries. The probe targeted retailers, wholesalers and manufacturers.“The criminals behind the importation, distribution and selling of these drugs have scant regard for human life in their reckless pursuit of illicit profits,” said Homeland Security Investigations Deputy Assistant Director Traci Lembke said in a prepared statement. “For criminal groups seeking to profit through the sale of illegal narcotics, the message is clear: We know how you operate, we know where you hide, and we will not stop until we bring you to justice.”
Touch’s arrest was part of the same sweeping investigation that last month ensnared a pair of Florida women, Crystal Hope Henry and Lydia Ruth Brown, who pleaded not guilty this week to federal drug charges. But Touch’s case does not appear to be directly related.The indictment alleges that Touch sold a designer drug commonly known as 5-fluoro-UR-144, or XLR11, at Two Dragons Convenience Store on Dunlap Circle in Prichard from 2011 to March 15 of this year.“Shutting down businesses that traffic in these drugs and attacking their operations worldwide is a priority for DEA and our law enforcement partners,” DEA Administrator Michele M. Leonhart said in a prepared statement. “These designer drugs are destructive, dangerous, and are destroying lives.”Defense attorney Chip Herrington denied the allegations.“My client’s not guilty, and we have no comment about any parallel investigation going on,” he said after today’s hearing.The defendants in the other case, Crystal Hope Henry and Lydia Ruth Brown, face charges that they imported the same drug as employees of a company called Zen Bio, which had operated out of Florida and, later, Alabama. In addition to the arrests, federal agents seized $950,000 from bank accounts connected to the alleged conspiracy, according to Homeland Security officials.As in their cases, the indictment against Touch includes a request for a forfeiture order allowing the government to seize assets and proceeds from the sale of the drug.The sale of designer drugs has taken many forms in the United States. According to the Department of Homeland Security, the drugs have been marketed as herbal incense, bath sales, jewelry cleaner and plant food. Their legal status has sometimes been hazy, and state and local governments in recent years have rushed to pass new laws designed to take them off the shelves of convenience stores.
At the federal level, officials contend that the DEA had emergency authority to temporarily place synthetic cathinones – products like “bath salts” that mimic cocaine – and synthetic cannabinoids like Spice on the list of Schedule I controlled substances. Congress last year voted to permanently place 26 substances on that list.Smokable herbal blends marketed as “legal” and providing a marijuana-like high have become increasingly popular, sold under brand names like Spice, K2, Blaze and Red X Dawn. These products consist of plant material that has been altered with psychoactive compounds that mimic THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, according to federal authorities.A 2012 report by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration indicated that 11,406 emergency department visits involving a synthetic cannabinoid product during 2010. In a 2013 report, the agency reported that the number of emergency department visits in 2011 involving a synthetic cannabinoid product had increased 2.5 times, to 28,531.According to federal authorities, synthetic drugs have caused addiction, vomiting, anxiety, seizures, hallucinations, loss of consciousness and other symptoms. Overdoes also have caused significant organ damage and even death, according to authorities.In addition to U.S. law enforcement officers, investigators from Australia, Barbados, Canada and Hong Kong also participated in last month’s raids.