How Gas Station Drug Rings Funnel Cash by the Millions into the Middle East

The DEA thinks the money goes to terrorists. Even if it does, more 'war on drugs' isn't the answer.

Photo Credit: KellyNelson / Shutterstock.com

What began as a DEA (U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration) bust of synthetic weed dealers in Alabama led to the arrest of more than 150 people allegedly involved in an international designer drug trade that is pouring its profits into groups in the Middle East.

The DEA raided a series of small stores and wareouses—places like gas stations, local delis, smoke shops, etc.—in Birmingham, Alabama, on May 7. They uncovered a stockpile of hundreds of thousands of bags filled with “Scooby Snax”(synthetic marijuana) in a large storage warehouse. After they traced the $30 to $40 million in profit from those drugs back to Yemen, the agency acquired 200-plus search warrants and extended their raid into a nationwide crackdown. DEA agencies across 29 states arrested more than 150 people allegedly involved in a global synthetic drug trade that funnels cash into  the Middle East. They found ties to Yemen, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon.

According to a “Global Synthetic Drugs Assessmentreportby the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime on May 20,  the synthetic drug market has been expanding at an “unprecedented”rate. Fake marijuana “Scooby Snacks,” (sometimes also called “spice”) have been connected to teen deaths. For example, as an article in the Daily Beast notes,  on May 22, a 20-year-old in Detroit reportedly hanged himselfafter taking synthetic marijuana he bought at a gas station.

While the DEA’s director of special operations has said that Middle Eastern drug rings could be using their drug dealing to fund terrorist organizations, the claim in this particular case has not been confirmed. However, there are more than 20 terrorist organizations worldwide that are linked to the international drug trade.

Maltz said the recent busts seem on par with other terrorism-related drug operations.

He told the Daily Beast, “This isn’t the kind of money you send back to your struggling family in the homeland: We’re talking eight-figure amounts.”

According to the UN world drug report, the international drug trade generates an annual average of $400 billion, and the chances of the DEA’s efforts actually making a significant impact on the larger illicit market are slim. A report released May 7, by the London School of Economics explains how crackdowns on illegal drug markets have failed overall thus far and sometimes serve to counterintuitively bolster the illicit drug trade. The report uses the example of U.S.-led counternarcotics efforts—activities aimed at dismantling the narcotic drug trade—as a costly, ineffective policy.

According to the report, the unintended consequences of these efforts have been “extensive human rights violations; further political, economic and social marginalization of illicit crop farmers; destabilization of local governments; alienation of local populations; strengthening of bonds between militant groups and local populations; and increases in violence perpetrated by [drug trafficking organizations] and other criminal groups.”

The report suggested a shift in global drug enforcement strategy to new efforts based on  harm reduction efforts like more realistic drug education, and health-based policies like better addiction treatment and research. These policies could address problem off at its source.

The report notes, “Continuing to spend vast resources on punitive enforcement-led policies, generally at the expense of proven public health policies, can no longer be justified."

Whether or not the recent DEA raids are related to terrorist organizations, it is likely the DEA’s crackdown efforts will do little good in the long run.

For a weekly roundup of AlterNet's top drugs stories, subscribe to our 'Drugs' newsletter here.

Don't let big tech control what news you see. Get more stories like this in your inbox, every day.

April M. Short is a freelance writer who focuses on health, wellness and social justice. She previously worked as AlterNet's drugs and health editor.