HOUSTON -- In the first nationwide operation targeting designer drugs, DEA agents arrested 90 people and confiscated millions of packets of synthetic drugs.
The products are cheaper versions of marijuana and amphetamines like cocaine and meth, but they're sold at small shops and some convenience stores.
“These substances, in some instances, were more toxic and potentially more deadly than the drugs such as marijuana, cocaine and amphetamines that they were manufactured to mimic,” said Joseph Arabit, Special Agent in Charge of the El Paso Division of the DEA.
“Bath salts,” a powerful, addictive hallucinogen, have been blamed in several incidents of violent, erratic behavior across the country.
On the border the DEA, and other law enforcement agencies, have focused their attention on stopping cartel smugglers from sneaking illegal drugs into the country.
At the same time, designer drugmakers openly sold their potent synthetic formulas in colorful packets with clever names that appeal to youngsters.
“It is a calculated effort by basement chemists to put product above safety. I want to call your attention to this product right here," said Frank Ortez, a commander with the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office.
At a press conference, he held up a shiny package with a clown on the label over the brand name LMFAO.
“This is packaged just like candy,” said Ortez.
The number of users is rapidly growing, along with profits that rival real marijuana.
“I think it’s too soon to tell whether it’s going to cut into the profit margins of some of the other cartels," said DEA Special Agent in Charge Arabit.
But it is clear that the drugs are gaining popularity with young users. According to an annual survey by Monitoring the Future, which tracks drug use by youth, synthetic marijuana is the second most commonly used illegal drug by high school seniors.
“There’s one product back here marked pure 100 percent evil,” said Arabit of a packet seized during a raid. “That appropriately depicts the contents of these products.”