151 arrested as US hits China-Middle East synthetic drug network

US agents have arrested 2 nephews of Venezuela's first lady for allegedly conspiring to smuggle 800 kilos of cocaine into America, Wall Street Journal reports, after the men allegedly contacted a US DEA informant in Honduras in October (AFP Photo/Mandel Ngan)

Washington (AFP) - US law enforcement officials announced Thursday they had arrested 151 people in a crackdown on synthetic "designer" drugs that tied Chinese suppliers to Middle East profiteers on the sales.

The Drug Enforcement Agency said arrests took place in 16 states around the country in the past two days as part of a 15 month effort against synthetics, linked to a rise in overdoses and drug deaths.

The operation seized some 10,000 kilograms of raw and packaged synthetic cannabinoids -- often called synthetic marijuana -- as well as $15 million in assets and 39 weapons.

The DEA said the drugs, many which are often chemically structured to just fall outside of US bans, are mostly imported from China and openly sold in convenience shops, gas stations and other outlets.

But investigators have found that the proceeds are often sent to the Middle East, the DEA said.

"For the past several years, DEA has identified over 400 new designer drugs in the United States –- the vast majority of which are manufactured in rogue labs in China," it said in a statement.

"Abuse of these psychoactive substances has resulted in ever-increasing numbers of overdose incidents and deaths."

The investigation into the industry, meanwhile, "continues to reveal the flow of millions of dollars in US synthetic drug proceeds to countries of concern in the Middle East."

The agency did not identify which countries, but in the past two years DEA officials have made reference to Yemen and Syria, among others.

"The availability and illicit marketing of synthetic drugs creates the impression that they are safe and legal, when in fact they are neither," said Sarah Saldana, director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which was also involved in the investigation.

In a coordinated move, the US Treasury hit with sanctions Nanjing, China-based Bo Peng and his company Kaikai Technology, who it said had "significant role" in trafficking synthetic drugs internationally.

"Today's action exposes Bo Peng’s illicit synthetic drug operations and cuts off his access to the international financial system. Treasury is committed to working with the DEA and our other law enforcement counterparts to disrupt this dangerous industry.”