Eastern Iowa businesses targeted in synthetic drug raid

Multiple search warrants being served in Iowa City

An Iowa City police officer carries crates into Zombies Tobacco Accessories, 316 E Burlington St during a raid on Wednesday, May, 7, 2014, in Iowa City, Iowa. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)
An Iowa City police officer carries crates into Zombies Tobacco Accessories, 316 E Burlington St during a raid on Wednesday, May, 7, 2014, in Iowa City, Iowa. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)

For the second time in less than a year, businesses in Eastern Iowa have been targeted as part of a nationwide synthetic drug raid.

Iowa City Police Chief Sam Hargadine confirmed Wednesday morning that his officers assisted in Phase II of Project Synergy, which the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has described as a global takedown of synthetic drug networks and supplies.

Hargadine said his officers assisted DEA officials at “at least one” business in Iowa City. A residence in Center Point also was searched by the DEA.

“I know there are multiple search warrants,” Hargadine said.

According to a DEA news release, Phase II was a collaborative effort among the DEA, Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Homeland Security Investigations, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Internal Revenue Service as well as state and local law enforcement agencies.

Phase II started in January. Law enforcement took action in 29 states, serving nearly 200 search warrants with assistance from more than 45 DEA offices.

“As of today, more than 150 individuals have been arrested and federal, state and local law enforcement authorities have seized hundreds of thousands of individually packaged, ready-to-sell synthetic drugs, as well as hundreds of kilograms of raw synthetic products to make thousands more,” the DEA statement read. “Additionally, more than $20 million in cash and assets were seized.”

The DEA said those numbers are expected to grow.

Synthetic marijuana, also known as K2, is sold under brands such as Spice, Blaze and Bizzaro, but sold as bath salts or plant food. The substance — smoked like marijuana — has been shown to cause vomiting, hallucinations, violence and psychosis.

The DEA said the drugs have lead to abuse, addiction, organ damage and overdose deaths.

“It’s a huge health hazard,” Hargadine said. “We’re going to keep at it.”

In Iowa City, law enforcement officers were seen removing items from Zombies, 316 E. Burlington St.; Happy Daze, 361. E. College St.; and Pipe Dreamz, 355 S. Linn St.

The global investigations also targeted the “flow of drug-related proceeds” to Middle East countries such as Yemen, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, as well as other countries, according to the DEA.

Variety of approaches

Phase I of Project Synergy culminated in June 2013. Eleven Eastern Iowa businesses were raided as part of the global operation that included arrests and searches in 35 states and five countries.

The DEA said at the time that Project Synergy started in December 2013 and ended with 150 arrest warrants and nearly 375 searches in 49 cities.

All told, eight stores were searched in Cedar Rapids, two in Iowa City and one in Waterloo in June 2013, according to the DEA. Officers seized hundreds of pounds of synthetic marijuana and cases of bath salts as well as cash, vehicles and handguns.

The entire operation netted $60 million in cash and assets, 9,445 kilograms of packaged synthetic drugs, 299 kilograms of bath salts, 1,252 kilograms of drugs used to make synthetic marijuana and 783 kilograms of treated plant material.

The Wednesday raid has a supporter in the Cheba Hut sandwich shop. The restaurant, which has a marijuana theme — large sandwiches are called “blunts” and subs come in varieties such as “kush” — is located next door to Zombies.

Cheba Hut Manager Kylie Havel said people associate the restaurant with Zombies, and that’s not a connotation she wants.

“We’re pretty happy here,” Havel said of the raid. “‘Ecstatic’ would probably be a better word.”

Havel said Zombies’s clientele sometimes stand in front of Cheba Hut, smoking cigarettes or K2 joints. Havel said she is hopeful that with fewer people standing near her front door, the restaurant will see an increase in business.

In April 2014, Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller announced a consumer fraud lawsuit against two Des Moines convenience store owners accused of selling synthetic drugs.

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