BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KBAK/KBFX) — Federal agents fanned out across Bakersfield on Wednesday morning and targeted 10 locations they believe are connected to the sale of the drugs known as "spice" and "bath salts."
Drug Enforcement Administration officers said the action was the result of a year-long investigation, which included a warehouse in Bakersfield they suspect was a large distribution point for the drugs.
DEA Fact Sheet: Spice >>
DEA Fact Sheet: Bath Salts >>
Carl Beckett, local DEA resident agent in charge, told Eyewitness News seven cigarette stores or smoke shops were raided, as well as the warehouse and two homes.
"We've heard the cries of the parents, the mothers, the fathers, who have made the complaints that their kids are buying spice and 'bath salts,' and getting hooked on it," Beckett said. "And so we opened up an investigation, and today is the culmination of that."
Federal officials call the big action Project Synergy, saying it started in December. On Wednesday, 35 states were targeted.
"These series of enforcement actions included retailers, wholesalers and manufacturers," a DEA statement read. "In addition, these investigations have uncovered the massive flow of drug-related proceeds back to countries in the Middle East and elsewhere."
The federal agency called the operation the "largest ever" synthetic drug takedown.
The agents said they're going after the "upper echelon of dangerous designer drug trafficking organizations that have operated without regard for the law or public safety."
This spring, Eyewitness News investigated families' concerns about the very serious effects of spice.
A mother Eyewitness News identified by only her first name said her 22-year-old son was addicted to the drug.
"He throws up blood, he turns gray, and almost passes out," Shyanne said. She identified the smoke shop in Bakersfield where her son bought the drug and said she'd tried to convince the owners to stop selling it.
Both federal law and a California law ban five chemical compounds used in spice, which is typically plant material with the chemical additives that produce the high. It's often sold under names like K2 and Funky Monkey, and typically comes in small jars or packets.
"In many cases, they are more potent and dangerous than marijuana," DEA officials said about the spice products. The action on Wednesday also targeted bath salt products.
"Bath salts is more of a powdery material," agent Beckett explained. "It looks similar to methamphetamine crushed up or cocaine."
The DEA said as a result of the federal search warrants served in the Bakersfield and Fresno areas on Wednesday, nearly $6 million worth of drugs were seized in hundreds of packets believed to contain synthetic cannabinoids. They also reported seizing a small amount of what they think is cocaine.
In the nationwide action, agents reported 375 search warrants, and 150 arrests warrants served. Beckett said it's premature to discuss any arrests in the Bakersfield area.
The warehouse that was targeted is right downtown, and the DEA agent said it was a primary target.
"This is the hub that we understood it to be," Beckett told Eyewitness News. "A lot of the smoke shops were receiving their stuff from this location."
The other locations included two Havana House smoke shops and four Cigarette World stores. At the Cigarette World in northeast Bakersfield, workers in nearby businesses said they watched undercover agents go in, and said they'd been worried about the cigarette store for a while.
"In my mind there's linkage to other things that have happened here," Sam Stewart said at his floor covering store. "The restaurant next door was broken into, we've been broken into twice. So that never happened, and we've been here pretty close to 19 years."
Eyewitness News called the various smoke shops that were raided, but no owners or other workers were available to comment.
The raids on Wednesday were DEA actions, with other local law agencies assisting. And, at the national level, DEA officials said they coordinated with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the FBI and immigration officials.
"In addition, law enforcement in Australia, Barbados, Panama, and Canada participated, as well as countless state and local law enforcement members," the DEA said.
Beckett said the operation started with concerns and help from the public.
"With any locations that we found out from the tips that we got that were selling to kids, we targeted those locations," he said.
The agent said some information came from concerned families, and some from media reports.
"Your investigative report was very helpful in us identifying a lot of the locations," Beckett told Eyewitness News.
This spring, Shyanne had raised very serious questions in our report.
"Is it going to take our kids dying before somebody actually makes a change and takes it (spice) off our streets? What's it going to take?" she asked.
We're not done," Agent Beckett said about the takedown on spice. "I want the public to understand that. Just because today we're doing 10 search warrants doesn't mean that we're finished."