ST. LOUIS (AP) - St. Louis-area police and prosecutors say the nationwide crackdown on synthetic designer drugs is fair warning to makers, distributors and sellers: Authorities are coming after you.
The Drug Enforcement Administration on Thursday announced it had seized more than $36 million in cash and arrested 91 people Wednesday in a nationwide crackdown on synthetic drugs including so-called bath salts and fake marijuana. In addition, 5 million packets of synthetic drugs were seized.
The figures include six arrests and the seizure of more than 210,000 packets in the six states covered by the St. Louis DEA office: Missouri, Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota and southern Illinois. Officials in the Midwestern states also seized $1.4 million and four vehicles.
Synthetic drugs have grown tremendously in popularity in recent years, sold under names such as "Spice" or "Vanilla Sky" in head shops, smoke shops and convenience stores. St. Louis-area law enforcement officials say the makers and sellers are targeting them to teenagers knowing full well they'll be used to get high.
The packets have labels warning against human consumption, but "that does not allow them to escape the reach of the law," Tom Gibbon, prosecuting attorney in Madison County, Ill., said.
Nationwide, law enforcement agencies in 109 cities conducted raids.
With the DEA cracking down on meth and heroin, making them harder to get, many people are turning to synthetics, authorities said at a news conference in St. Louis.
"These are dangerous, deadly chemicals that are marketed as safe and legal and nothing could be further from the truth," said James Shroba, DEA special agent in St. Louis. "Anyone involved in the dangerous synthetic drug trade should think twice as DEA is attacking this epidemic at every label."
A growing number of deaths have been blamed on synthetic drugs, and police are also concerned about the often bizarre behavior of users. The DEA said the nation's poison control centers responded to about 3,200 calls related to synthetic drugs in 2011. That number rose to 13,000 calls last year. Three-fifths of the cases involve people 25 or younger.
Legislating against synthetic drugs is difficult because manufacturers often tweak the formulas to stay a step ahead of lawmakers. Experts estimate more than 100 different bath-salt chemicals are circulating.
The DEA temporarily banned some of the chemicals found in synthetic marijuana, and President Barack Obama this month signed into law a measure that bans the sale, production and possession of many of the chemicals found in the most popular synthetic drugs.
Police say many users believe the synthetics are safe because they are sold in stores, not on the street. But St. Charles County, Mo., Sheriff Tom Neer disagreed.
"They're just as strong a problem as heroin and methamphetamine, and we all know what a heroin and meth problem we have," Neer said.