LITTLE ROCK — Five Little Rock men were among more than 150 people arrested Wednesday in the nation’s largest-ever operation targeting synthetic drug trafficking, federal authorities announced.
The operation, Project Synergy, resulted in arrests in 35 states and five countries, Chris Thyer, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Arkansas, said in a news conference at the Little Rock office of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
The suspects arrested in Little Rock are Sahar Kattom, 34, owner of Sunshine Food and Sunshine Mart; Abdul Aziz Farishta, 50, owner of Joseph’s Discount Store; Amjad Kattom, 20; Yousef Qattoum, 37; and Adam Kattoum, 20. A sixth suspect, Eassa Rawashdeh, 23, owner of Smokey’s Discount Tobacco, was still at large Wednesday afternoon.
All of the Arkansas suspects are charged in a federal criminal complaint with conspiracy to distribute and possess with intent to distribute controlled substances and analogues of controlled substances. The five who were arrested made initial appearances Wednesday before U.S. Magistrate Beth Deere and remained in custody Wednesday afternoon.
The complaint alleges that the defendants conspired to distribute synthetic cannabinoids, or synthetic marijuana products sold under names such as Spice, K2, Blaze and Red X Dawn; and synthetic cathinones, or stimulants/hallucinogens also known as "bath salts" or "plant food" and sold under names such as Ivory Wave, Purple Wave, Vanilla Sky and Bliss.
If convicted, each defendant could face up to 20 years in prison and/or a fine of up to $1 million.
In addition to Sunshine Food, Sunshine Mart, Joseph’s Discount Store and Smokey’s Discount Tobacco, the designer drugs allegedly were sold from Woodrow Discount Store and Hip Hop Sportwear between July 2012 and this month.
"Many people have the misconception that these drugs are not dangerous or that they are not illegal," Thyer said. "Both of those two assertions are categorically false. In 2010 there were 11,406 emergency room visits associated with synthetic drug overdose. Just three years later that number had almost tripled to nearly 30,000 emergency room visits."
Congress placed 26 designer drugs on the list of Schedule I controlled substances Last year. The DEA has used its emergency scheduling authority to place several other synthetic cannabinoids and cathinones on the Schedule I list.
"Many of us watched in horror the video … out of Florida where a man attempted to cannibalize another man on the street. That was synthetic drugs," Thyer said.
Investigators believe the drugs are being manufactured in Asia, mainly in India and China. The recipes change from one batch to another, so users have no idea what chemicals they are putting into their bodies, Thyer said.
William J. Bryant, assistant special agent in charge of the DEA’s Little Rock office, said the investigation in Little Rock was conducted for about a year under the name Operation Spicy Possum before it was linked with the international Project Synergy.
Authorities executed search warrants at each of the businesses named in the complaint, Bryant said. Officers also seized several vehicles, more than 10 pounds of designer drugs and one firearm in Little Rock on Wednesday, in addition to more than 52 pounds of drugs that officers obtained over the past year, he said.
"These stores that we seized it at, they had kept it under the counter," Bryant said. "They didn’t prominently display it. We made undercover buys with confidential sources."
The investigation remains active and more arrests are possible, he said.