NEW YORK -- When K2 smokers started passing out on a small patch of Broadway in Bedford-Stuyvesant last week — with 33 of them overdosing —there might have been an inclination to think the synthetic pot problem had simply moved from East Harlem in Manhattan to Brooklyn.
That would not be correct.
“It’s still all over the city,” said James Hunt, Special Agent in Charge of the New York office of the Drug Enforcement Administration. “If people want to find it, they’re going to find it.”
Hunt’s agents have been working with the NYPD to track down the storage facilities and “front” businesses that stash the ingredients to make K2, which is really just one of 500 brand names the synthetic cannabinoids are sold under.
The stuff may look like marijuana but it’s nothing like it. Users can be gripped by seizures or psychotic episodes, and some have died during overdoses.
K2 traffickers import chemicals that are mixed in China, mostly receiving them in the mail, and then spray the chemicals on dried leaves and package the product in colorful bags. The fake pot, which is then rolled in paper and smoked, has been sold for years over the counter in tobacco shops and bodegas.
The profits are enormous, and that’s remained a worry for the federal government, which acknowledges that millions of dollars have been wired overseas, possibly to pay for terror training and plots.
“It’s a concern that money from some of these organizations has gone back to countries in conflict,” the DEA’s Hunt told PIX11. “Yemen. Jordan. Syria. So, anytime we see money going back to these countries, it’s a concern for law enforcement, that it could be going to fund terrorism.”
In September 2015, federal agents raided an auto body shop and storage facilities in the Bronx, finding 2 million packages of K2 and hundreds of bags of plant material waiting to be sprayed. The packs were bound for 70 retail stores around the city.
The U.S. Attorney in the Southern District of New York accused ten men from Yemen in the plot. The accused ringleader, Abdulla Deiban, was charged with being one of the main importers. He and co-defendant, Faris Nasser Kassim, were eventually tracked down in Saudi Arabia and expelled from the country to the United States. All ten men pleaded not guilty, made bail, and will return to court in August.
The feds were flagged on Abdulla Deiban in 2014, when police stopped him for talking on his cell phone while driving. A search of his car revealed $644,338.00 was stashed in the vehicle. Another $150,935.00 was found in Deiban’s Queens home.
In March this year, the FBI conducted a joint raid with the DEA at Excellent Tire Shop Services, located at 98-04 Springfield Boulevard in Queens Village.
Agents found loads of tires in the front, but charge they also discovered 170 kilos of suspected, synthetic cannabinoids already packaged for immediate sale to customers.
Concealed behind a tarp, agents said, they found a narcotics manufacturing facility—with ‘industrial’ quantities of chemicals used to make the fake pot, packaging materials, flavoring agents, and processed product that wasn’t packaged yet for sale.
One defendant—Osvaldo Maria Vasquez—was arrested at the tire shop. He had a previously-issued arrest warrant charging him with participating in a conspiracy to distribute cocaine in 2014 and 2015.
After the March arrest, NYPD Commissioner, Bill Bratton, said, “This makeshift cannabinoid lab, which operated out of sight in the rear of a tire shop, was used to produce this poison in the vicinity of several homes and businesses.”
When PIX11 visited the tire shop this week, we found a pit bull barking in the rear.
We also noticed the shop sits in the shadow of an AME Cathedral next door.
Osvaldo Maria Vasquez pleaded not guilty in early June and returns to court next month.
When we asked about him at the tire shop this week, an employee there shut the door on us.