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Cedar Rapids, Iowa City Drug Raid Part of Global Enforcement Effort

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IOWA CITY, Iowa - Federal drug agents raided 11 eastern Iowa businesses Wednesday as part of a "global takedown" of synthetic drugs that included arrests and searches in 35 states and five countries, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) reported.

The DEA announced Wednesday that Project Synergy, started in December, ended Wednesday with an additional 150 arrest warrants and nearly 375 searches in 49 cities.

Eight stores were searched in Cedar Rapids, two in Iowa City and one in Waterloo, said Jim Shroba, acting special agent in charge of the DEA's St. Louis office. Agents searched another eight locations, including storage units and residences, connected to people who run the stores, he said.

Seized in the eastern Iowa searches were hundreds of pounds of synthetic marijuana, cases of synthetic stimulants known as bath salts, "an undetermined quantity of money, vehicles and handguns," Shroba said.

No one was arrested, he said, but "there are federal indictments coming."

Mike Rozga, whose 18-year-old son, David, shot himself in 2010 after smoking K2, a synthetic drug that was legal at the time, said Wednesday he's glad to see law enforcement crack down on stores that sell synthetics.

"It's very frustrating, from our vantage point, to know these things are being sold in front of our faces," said Rozga, of Indianola. "It's sad to think these people are preying upon our young people for their own personal greed."

Shroba would not say which Cedar Rapids stores were raided, but confirmed Gazette reports that YR Dollar Stop Liquor & Tobacco, in the 1500 block of First Ave. NE, and Gyro Hut, at 1455 Mt. Vernon Rd., SE, were on the list. Agents in U.S. Marshals and DEA jackets were at YR Dollar Stop Wednesday morning.

"We definitely were glad to see it happen," Keith Luter, whose barbershop, Million Dollar Cuts, is next to YR Dollar Stop.

The Den and In-Zone, two downtown Iowa City stores, were closed Wednesday morning as officers executed search warrants.

A large white truck, two Iowa City Police vans and several squad cars were parked on Washington Street for much of the day. An officer turned away customers to the Den, known for cheap fountain pop, Hawkeye gear and an upstairs area that sells smoking accessories. Agents bustled in and out with boxes as employees stood off to the side, waiting for the search to be done.

Although the federal government banned the sale of K2, drug producers tweak their recipes to produce similar blends that aren't illegal. The drugs are often marked as incense and say "not for human consumption," but police believe most people buy the $20 packs to smoke and get high.

The DEA probe focused not just on smokable herbal blends, marketed under brands like "Spice," "Blaze" and "Bizzaro," but on synthetic drugs sold under the guise of bath salts or plant food.
These drugs, on the rise with young people, can cause agitation, extreme nervousness, racing heartbeat, hallucinations and violent behavior, the Office of Drug Control Policy reported.

While many of the synthetic drugs seized are not specifically prohibited, a 1986 enforcement act allows agents to treat the drugs like controlled substances if they are proven to be chemically or pharmacologically similar to a Schedule I or Schedule II controlled substances, the DEA said.

Project Synergy included enforcement actions on retailers, wholesalers and manufacturers, the DEA reported. The agency also uncovered a "massive flow of drug-related proceeds back to countries in the Middle East and elsewhere."

The DEA's partners in the investigation include Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Homeland Security, the FBI and IRS. Law enforcement agencies in Australia, Barbados, Panama and Canada participated "as well as countless state and local law enforcement members."

Iowa City Police Officer Jerry Blomgren said Iowa City worked with the DEA to search the Den and In-Zone. Zombies, an Iowa City store that sold synthetic pot to a KCRG-TV9 reporter in May, was not raided Wednesday, he said. "They are of interest, but there's no current search warrant at this time," Blomgren said.

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