JEFFERSON, La. - Jefferson Parish authorities said Thursday they have made another stride in the war on synthetic drugs. They arrested seven people believed to be part of a major manufacturing ring. But there's still a ways to go when it comes to getting the drug off the streets.
As part of the massive raid that spanned Jefferson and Plaquemines Parish, authorities confiscated truckloads of materials used to make synthetic marijuana. Among the items were 1,000 pounds of marshmallow leaves, multiple bottles of Everclear and acetone, and hundreds of packages and labels.
Authorities believe the group they busted may have been distributing in at least nine states with potential profits in the millions.
A lengthy investigation led Jefferson Parish officials to a Marrero home in the 2700 block of Dorothy Drive they believe was being used as a drug lab. When deputies arrived on June 6th, they found five boxes of packaging for a brand of synthetic marijuana called "Bob Narley" and a bag sealer in plain view in the rear of a white Toyota Sienna. Once inside, authorities also found nearly $17,000, said Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand.
Thanh Nguyen was charged with two counts of manufacturing a controlled dangerous substance.
Chieu Nguyen and Lucy Nguyen were each charged with conspiracy to distribute a controlled dangerous substance.
Vi Le was charged with operation of a clandestine lab, possession with intent to distribute synthetic cannibinoids, and possession of a controlled dangerous substance over 400 grams.
Authorities later searched a house in the 2900 block of Mt. Kennedy Drive in Marrero, and arrested three more people suspected of working in that same operation. Inside the home, they found a clear plastic bag with a white powdery substance, loose green plant matter, and paperwork relating to the sale of synthetic marijuana. The substances are being tested at the crime lab. A man inside the home, Harold Bourgeois III, then led authorities to a warehouse at 131 Jarrell Drive in Belle Chasse. Inside that warehouse, authorities said they found a plethora of materials used to manufacture synthetic weed.
Authorities said substance is made using plant matter. It's then sprayed with a powdery white chemical that produces the "high," as well as acetone or Everclear to dissolve the substance. It's then mixed, often in a cement mixer, and put in a ventilator to dry, before being packaged and labeled.
Harold Bourgeois, Jr. and his wife, Claudia Smith, were each booked with possession with intent to distribute a controlled dangerous substance.
Bourgeois' son's girlfriend, Christina Facchinetti, was booked with possession of a controlled dangerous substance over 400 grams.
And while officials believe they've made a dent, they know there's a long way to go.
"The reality is, we've got our hands around a group of knuckleheads that did this," said Normand. "Trust me when I tell you, there's another group of knuckleheads that are standing right behind them and willing to take the risk, and risk everybody in our community for the sake of the almighty dollar."
And with the latest raid comes a strong message.
"As a reminder to the retail establishments in Jefferson Parish that are selling this crap we're going to put you out of business," said Normand.
But half the stores cited in a previous raid in March are still open. The smoke shops that have shut down did so voluntarily. Jefferson Parish officials said closing stores can be a lengthy process that may first require committees or convictions.
Normand said a public nuisance ordinance that was used to shut down some motels along Airline Highway could be applied to stores that continue to sell synthetic marijuana. In that case, a committee was put together before the motels could be shut down.
"We continue as it relates to occupational license, sales tax, all kinds of things that we can do as it relates to that," said Normand.
The Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control can suspend or revoke the alcohol licenses of establishments caught selling synthetic marijuana, but some of those businesses don't sell alcohol. Thanks to the state legislature this year, the ATC can now suspend tobacco licenses as well.
The legislature also recently gave The Department of Health and Hospitals the authority to order a business to stop selling a suspected dangerous substance. And legislators banned yet another compound used to make synthetic weed, giving manufacturers one less way to skirt the law.
Meanwhile, authorities said the investigation continues, and they expect more arrests.
"We're playing this cat and mouse game with it," said Normand.