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Global Law Enforcement Collaboration Nets Largest Synthetic Drug Takedown

Release Date: 
July 3, 2013

The largest U.S. seizure of synthetic drugs, involving hundreds of law enforcement actions and nearly $15 million in cash and assets, culminated last week with the public announcement of Project Synergy, a collaboration of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the Drug Enforcement Administration and other U.S. and international law enforcement partners.

The June 26 Project Synergy enforcement operations in 35 states targeted the upper echelon of dangerous designer synthetic drug trafficking organizations and included retailers, wholesalers and manufacturers. The investigations, which began in December 2012, uncovered a massive flow of drug-related proceeds to countries in the Middle East and elsewhere. Since February, officials have seized more than 1,000 kilograms of synthetic drugs at express consignment facilities.

Synthetic drugs-commonly marketed as herbal incense, bath salts, jewelry cleaner, or plant food-pose significant public health risks.

David Murphy, CBP acting assistant commissioner of field operations, at the event announcing Project Synergy.

David Murphy, CBP acting assistant commissioner of field operations, at the event announcing Project Synergy.

Photo Credit:Jim Tourtellotte

"CBP's National Targeting Center played a significant role in the operation by identifying and targeting high-risk express consignment shipments suspected of containing synthetic drugs or precursor chemicals or herbs used to manufacture synthetic drugs," said David Murphy, CBP acting assistant commissioner for the Office of Field Operations, during the Project Synergy announcement last week.

Murphy also recognized the scientists with CBP's Laboratories and Scientific Services, who he called instrumental in identifying synthetic drugs and compounds designed to circumvent U.S. controlled substance classifications. CBP's Office of International Affairs also "played a role in coordinating with counterparts in Canada, Australia and New Zealand to participate in this enforcement effort," Murphy said.

Project Synergy's June 26 enforcement action netted more than 150 arrest warrants and nearly 375 search warrants in 35 states, 49 cities and five countries. During the three days prior, CBP and DEA seized more than 550 kilograms of synthetic drugs from international shipments at express consignment facilities.

"These designer drugs are destructive, dangerous and are destroying lives," said DEA Administrator Michele M. Leonhart. "Shutting down businesses that traffic in these drugs and attacking their operations worldwide is a priority for DEA and our law enforcement partners."

CBP officers and lab employees work with DEA employees on Project Synergy seized drug sampling at a Cincinnati express shipment facility.

CBP officers and lab employees work with DEA employees on Project Synergy seized drug sampling at a Cincinnati express shipment facility.

In January 2009, CBP's Chicago Field Office intercepted the first known shipment of synthetic drugs into the U.S. That shipment-more than 100 pounds of herbal incense containing a powerful, synthetic version of the active ingredient in marijuana-was seized at the express mail facility in Cincinnati.

Project Synergy was coordinated by DEA's Special Operations Division, working with the DEA Office of Diversion Control, and included cases led by DEA, CBP, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's Homeland Security Investigations, FBI and IRS. The operation included efforts by law enforcement in Australia, Barbados, Panama and Canada, as well as state and local law enforcement agencies.

"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." said Traci Lembke, ICE HSI deputy assistant director of investigative programs.

"This is a significant seizure of synthetic drugs and is a terrific result for our respective law enforcement agencies," said Australia's Acting Ambassador to the U.S. Graham Fletcher. "Australia remains committed to sharing intelligence with its U.S. partners to combat transnational crime across international borders. This is a win for our collective communities."

Last modified: 
February 8, 2017