Amid K2 overdose spike, retired DEA agent says synthetic drugs fund terrorism

WASHINGTON — The risks from synthetic marijuana aren’t limited to the user who may collapse, fall unconscious, or vomit after ingesting the poison-laced leaves — it may also fund terrorism.

Derek Maltz was the special agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Agency’s Special Operations Division from 2005 through 2014.

Maltz said money from the sale of K2 or Spice has been tracked to the Middle East, where it is being used to help finance terrorism groups. K2 contains herbs and spices sprayed with a synthetic compound chemically similar to THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana.

Maltz was involved in Project Synergy, which tracked the synthetic drug distribution network, led to stings in Alabama, Florida and New Mexico, and resulted in more than 227 arrests in December 2012.

“We saw mass amounts, in the millions of dollars, going through U.S. banks, back to Yemen,” said Maltz, in a WTOP interview.

“We started identifying some very, very suspicious people in Yemen, who were receiving the money and involved in ATM withdrawals in Yemen.”

The money suggested illegal activity, said Maltz.

“You don’t see a million dollars a week, or 30 million dollars a month leaving the United States to go to Yemen,” said Maltz. “It’s just very abnormal behavior — Yemen is a very poor country.”

One of Al Qaida’s main cells, AQAP, operates in Yemen.

“There’s a lot of recruiting of jihadists in that country, and we also seized videos — martyrdom-style, radical terrorist-style videos that are being pushed out on the internet,” said Maltz.

A major challenge to proving the linkage of synthetic drugs to terrorism is that the suspects live in Yemen, said Maltz.

“You have incredible corruption, and the inability to actually conduct law enforcement operations in that space.”

Maltz said a public awareness campaign is needed to alert people of the likelihood that money from the illegal, cheap, synthetic drugs is supporting activities that threaten the United States.

“It needs to be attacked very, very seriously, because it’s a serious, in my opinion, national security issue that we need to address.”

More than 100 drug overdose patients have been transported to emergency rooms in the District in the past five days.

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