Could U.S. convenience stores be a link in the terror financing chain?

Synthetic marijuana
Synthetic marijuana

(CNN) — For law enforcement officials, tracking down terrorists can often mean following the money.

That hunt has recently led authorities to a very unlikely place, convenient stores right here in the United States.

You’re not supposed to ingest these, but people do anyway. Synthetic drugs. Known on the street as fake pot. Small packets sold with names like Scooby Snax, Crazy Clown, and Spice.

“It’s not really synthetic pot; it’s synthetic poison,” said Derek Maltz, Special Operations, DEA.

For the last year, federal drug agents have been raiding gas-stations and mini-marts across America. Not because the synthetic drugs are illegal. But because the money, officials believe, is going overseas to fund terrorism.

“We have seized over a hundred million dollars’ worth of assets, we have arrested hundreds of individuals all around the United States, we have seized guns all over the place,” said Maltz.

Usually sold as herbs-not-for-consumption, the synthetic drugs are made in China with proceeds suspected, by the DEA, of going to global criminal organizations.

Maltz heads Special Operations for the Drug Enforcement Administration.

“If a minimart is operating in our country and they’re sending 40, 50, 60 million dollars back, we’re very concerned about that,” said Maltz.

Tens-of-millions-of dollars — the bulk of the money, according to the DEA, going to places like Yemen, Syria and Lebanon.

“As state sponsorship has declined, terrorism fueled by criminal activity is on the rise,” said Maltz.

While the DEA acknowledges there is no actual smoking-gun tying synthetic-drug money from the U.S. to terrorists, Maltz says the existing evidence paints a clear picture.

“The terrorists need money to finance their operations. They need money for logistics, recruiting, training. You cannot do that with an American Express and Visa; you need a suitcase of cash,” said Maltz.

Synthetic drugs aside, the global drug trade produces plenty of that.

According to the UN, some 300-billion-dollars and counting.

Synthetic drug use appears to be soaring in the US, accounting for more than 11-thousand emergency room visits in 2010. About half of those patients were teenagers.

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