DEA Leads First Nationwide Synthetic Drug Takedown in “Operation Log Jam”

July 29, 2012

By Karla L. Palmer & Larry K. Houck

Drug Enforcement Administration (“DEA”) Administrator Michele M. Leonhart, accompanied by officials from Internal Revenue Service Criminal Investigations (Richard Weber), Immigration and Customs Office of Homeland Security (James Chaparro), and U.S. Postal Inspections, held a press conference yesterday announcing the results of “Operation Log Jam.”  This large-scale, synthetic drug enforcement operation that occurred on July 26, 2012, is the first nationwide federal, state and local multi-agency enforcement action against the synthetic drug industry.  Administrator Leonhart stated that the synthetic designer drug industry was responsible for producing and selling synthetic cathinones, which produce stimulant/hallucinogenic effects and are marketed as “bath salts” or “plant food,” and synthetic cannabinoids, which are easily available, more potent than marijuana and are marketed as “herbal incense,” “K2” and “Spice.”  The DEA’s press release is available here.

Administrator Leonhart explained that the takedown was a joint operation of DEA and ICE, with assistance from the Internal Revenue Service Criminal Investigations, U.S. Postal Inspection Service, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, FBI, Food and Drug Administration’s Office of Criminal Investigations, and “countless state and local law enforcement members in more than 109 cities.”  The operation also “targeted every level of the synthetic designer drug industry, including retailers, wholesalers, and manufacturers.”  Leonhart reported that the nationwide action resulted in the arrest of ninety individuals and the seizure of more than $36 million in cash.  The Administrator stated that the operation seized more than 4.8 million packets of synthetic cannabinoids (and products to produce another 13.6 million synthetic cannabinoid products), as well as 167,000 packets of synthetic cathinones (and products to produce an additional 392,000 cathinone products).

DEA explained in the accompanying press release that the products, sold in retail outlets, head shops and over the Internet, have become popular among teenagers and young adults.

Congress recently enacted the Synthetic Drug Abuse Prevention Act of 2012 as part of the Food and Drug Administration Safety and Innovation Act, which places twenty-six synthetic cathinones and synthetic cannabinoids into schedule I of the Federal Controlled Substances Act (“CSA”) (see our summary here).  Schedule I controlled substances have a high potential for abuse and no recognized medical use in the United States.  DEA had used its emergency scheduling authority to temporarily control those substances in schedule I to avoid an imminent hazard to the public health.

DEA acknowledged that several of the substances seized in Operation Log Jam are not, however, substances that are specifically prohibited by the CSA.  Leonhart noted that the Controlled Substance Analogue Enforcement Act of 1986 “specifically exists to combat these new and emerging designer drugs.”  The 1986 Act allows for the treatment of certain drugs and substances as controlled substances if they are chemically and pharmacologically similar to schedule I or II controlled substances; thus prosecutions could occur pursuant to the 1986 Act.  Ms. Leonhart stated that prosecutions might also occur under more strict state laws.  Of the joint effort, Leonhart added that “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.”