Despite outrage from Tonawanda Seneca Indians complaining that their sovereignty was violated, federal authorities offered no apologies Thursday for conducting a raid at the Native American reservation and seizing synthetic marijuana and other merchandise from four smoke shops.
The top local U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agent said the man-made pot has been linked to a number of overdoses that have landed young people in hospitals across Western New York.
But Native American merchants and clerks said they thought that the government overreacted by coming in heavily armed in a lightning-fast raid.
"There were more than 30 agents at my business. They held my employees at gunpoint. It was as if my employees were a drug cartel," said Norrie Spring, owner of Sacajawea Smoke Shop in the Genesee County community of Basom.
Dale M. Kasprzyk, resident agent in charge of the DEA's Buffalo office, said, "These drugs are dangerous, and manufactured to replicate marijuana. There have been overdoses and hospitalizations."
There are warning labels advising purchasers not to ingest the synthetic substance, which is sold under the guise of incense, but it is frequently consumed, according to Kasprzyk.
Parents, school officials, family members and local law enforcement officers in Erie, Genesee and Monroe counties, he said, have complained about the potlike substance causing medical emergencies.
The federal government's concerns were of little comfort to retailers on the Tonawanda Band of Senecas Reservation, a 35-minute drive east of Buffalo and not part of the larger Seneca Nation of Indians.
"If you go through history, this happens all the time. It's nothing new. They rape us all the time," Spring said. "The thing is, they don't get to go into another country, and that's what's happening here. They don't go into Canada or Mexico and do this. This was a completely and absolutely illegal seizure. They took our surveillance cameras so the raid would not be recorded."
Authorities said they were not the only ones armed. At least one semiautomatic rifle was confiscated at one of the smoke shops, they said.
Employees at the retail outlets acknowledged that "Spice" and "K2," the brand names of the synthetic pot, are big sellers, but pointed out that on the labels, it clearly states that the product is not for human consumption. They also said they do not push sales of the product.
In addition, there are no state laws prohibiting the sale, they said, and what people do with their purchases is their own business.
Yet there was no question that smoke shop workers were rattled by Thursday's raid, which was highly unusual because it involved Native American lands.
An estimated 90 agents armed with rifles and other weapons simultaneously raided Sacajawea, the Rez Smoke Shop, Arrowhawk Smoke Shop and Smoke Rings Tobacco Emporium at about 9 a.m.
At the same time, federal authorities said, tribal officials were notified, so as to minimize any chance of violence.
There were no arrests, and agents from the DEA; the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement; and the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs were off the reservation within 45 minutes.
Spice and K2, authorities say, provide a marijuanalike high, but one that is more intense as it reacts with sensors in the brain, often causing unpredictable medical reactions.
The drugs are manufactured in Chinese laboratories and find their way to vendors all over the United States, including the Tonawanda Senecas Reservation, just north of Pembroke, which straddles Erie, Genesee and Niagara counties and has about 600 residents.
Genesee County Sheriff Gary T. Maha said he welcomed the raid.
"We know there have been kids going to the reservation to buy Spice and K2, and these are very dangerous drugs when consumed," Maha said. "They are highly potent and can send a person into a seizure and convulsions."
His deputies, he said, receive complaints about young people overdosing and requiring hospital care "after the fact."
"The problem we have is, it is not against state law to sell this, but there are proposed state laws pending," he said of why federal authorities conducted the operation.
Defending the actions of federal agents and citing federal drug laws, U.S. Attorney William J. Hochul Jr. said agents were protecting the "health and safety" of the community both on and off the reservation by removing the illegal substances.
"Under federal law, it is illegal to sell synthetic drugs intended for human consumption," Hochul said, adding that search warrants were obtained in U.S. District Court.
"The federal government has always had -- and continues to have -- jurisdiction over federal crimes that occur on a Native American reservation. We do try, to the extent feasible, to contact the tribal leaders and advise them of a law enforcement action.
"It's to ensure there is an understanding why federal law enforcement [agents] are going on a reservation and to give the tribal leadership an idea of the nature of what is being investigated."
Several months ago, the DEA's Buffalo office started receiving complaints about synthetic marijuana overdoses and began an investigation, which took agents to the Tonawanda Senecas Reservation, Kasprzyk said.
The ATF and ICE joined the investigation when it was noticed retailers also were selling "rollies," loose cigarettes sold in Ziploc bags, contrary to federal packaging regulations for tobacco, and clothing and accessories with suspected fake brand names that might have been illegally imported.
"We executed search warrants for violations of unregulated contraband tobacco," said Frank J. Christiano, special agent in charge of the ATF's Buffalo office.
DEA agents seized large quantities of Spice and K2, which range in price from $8 to $35 a package. In addition, agents were on the lookout for bath salts, which represent a synthetic methamphetamine, but it was undetermined whether any was found.
When the raid concluded, Native Americans business owners and workers said, agents left the reservation with truckloads of merchandise.
Describing the ultrafast raid, Valerie Parker, a clerk at Sacajawea's "VIP" clothing and accessories store, said that at first, she thought a large contingent of shoppers was approaching the store Thursday morning.
"I was kind of stunned. I thought it was a million customers," Parker said, "and I didn't want it to be so busy at nine in the morning. They even had a U-Haul truck. Then I realized it was the cops.
"I hopped on my phone and called my mom to get representation from the Tribal Chiefs Council. The feds were quite firm about me getting off the phone and opening the door or they would bust it down."
She said she told the agents, " 'You don't have any rights here,' and when they tried to take my phone, I swatted at them. They told me I could be arrested and taken to federal prison if I didn't comply."
When asked about people consuming Spice and K2, she said, "I'm not a user, but to each his own. I'm behind the counter selling it, but obviously, I would love it if people didn't abuse substances."
Hochul said his staff will now review the evidence taken into custody and decide on the next step in the investigation.