China is the primary source of a lethal mix of the chemicals known as spice. These synthetic cannabinoids are often marketed at low cost to teenagers and young adults in such flavors as strawberry, lime, and blueberry in a thinly veiled attempt at making these drugs seem harmless. However, in addition to a number of psychological symptoms such as paranoia and panic attacks, smoking spice can cause acute kidney failure that can lead to death.
In New York State alone, the use of spice resulted in 2,300 emergency room visits within a two-week period. At the national level, calls about spice to poison control centers related to the use of spice increased 229% between January and May 2015 as compared to the same period in 2014. At least 1,000 Americans have died from using these types of drugs since 2009.
Although synthetic cannabinoids are highly dangerous, they are very difficult to regulate, because they are comprised of a mixture of different types of chemical compounds. As soon as the government outlaws one type of compound, the manufacturers in China simply switch to another slightly different compound that is technically legal.
Nonetheless, the DEA has aggressively pursued dealers who import spice from China. As of May 2015, the DEA had seized 19 tons of raw materials and packaged spice since 2014, which could have yielded hundreds of millions of dollars in sales.
In one major coup, the agency lured a Chinese chemist to the US who was serving as one of the major suppliers, and he was subsequently arrested in March 2015. It is highly unusual for Chinese chemists involved in the production of spice to come to the US, but the DEA lured Haijun Tian into the country by turning one of his primary dealers into a confidential informant.
In September 2015, the DEA announced a massive takedown of dealers in all five boroughs of New York City who sold spice imported from China. The scheme allegedly involved the importation of at least 100 kilograms of illegal synthetic compounds—enough for about 260,000 retail packets of spice.
Cooperation with a number of agencies at the federal, state, and local level made this operation possible.