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The Synthetic Drugs Trade Is A Multimillion-dollar Industry

Exemestane--the synthetic drugs trade is a multimillion-dollar industry, but a legal one

In June 2013, the US Drug Enforcement Administration took down an international synthetic drug ring in an operation that culminated with 227 arrests across 35 states and five countries and more than 2,100 kilograms of synthetic cannabinoids and treated plant material seized, as well as $60 million in cash and assets.

A DEA picture of the contraband seized during Project Synergy.

But that's just a peek at how large and lucrative synthetic drug operations are becoming.

"This is millions and millions and millions of dollars that these organizations make off this stuff," said DEA spokesman Matthew Barden, who worked on the aforementioned operation, Project Synergy. "When you're talking about a small amount of tea leaves with chemical sprayed on it and people are paying 20 bucks, it can get very lucrative very quick."

Synthetic cannabinoids are commonly referred to as "synthetic marijuana," although that title is extremely misleading since they can be up to 100 times more potent than traditional marijuana and can produce far more devastating effects.

The drugs are made of deadly chemicals that are imported into the US from China and mixed with a solvent before being sprayed on tea leaves and packaged and sold in 1.5-to-3-gram baggies that can cost anywhere between $5 and $20.

They have been linked to some 1,000 deaths since 2009, and Barden says American poison control centers have already responded to some 6,000 calls regarding the use of synthetic cannabinoids this year.

They're growing in popularity because they're viewed as a safe, legal, version of marijuana that won't show up on a drug test. But the drugs aren't legal. The DEA has already classified more than 25 types of synthetic cannabinoids as illegal, and unidentified cannabinoids that have a similar chemical makeup are also illegal under the US Federal Analogue Act.

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