ATLANTA - Channel 2 Action News got rare access inside a heavily secured safe which holds hundreds of pounds of chemicals from China shipped to metro Atlanta to make dangerous synthetic drugs.
Since Channel 2's first investigation on synthetic drugs in 2010, videos of people high on synthetic marijuana and bath salts have popped up all over the Internet. Users can act psychotic, and some even threaten to eat other people and dogs.
Metro Atlanta is now considered a hub for synthetic drugs. Law enforcement agencies said the drugs’ popularity has skyrocketed in the state because of the money that can be made from selling it and easy access to the product.
"Recent studies show that this may be the second-most abused narcotic there is," said Brock Nicholson with the state’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement Homeland Security Investigations office.
For the first time, federal agents let a Channel 2 reporter and photographer near the vault where they're storing more than 700 of pounds of chemicals used to make these drugs. Agents seized the chemicals before they hit the street, and nearly all of them came from China.
Nicholson showed Channel 2's Tom Regan a packaged block that weighed just over 2 pounds.
"This is the base chemical that are sent over from China and India, in some cases. This is just a pure chemical that they use to add to plant material, acetone and other nefarious things," Nicholson said. "This kilo, which may cost the guy who brings it in from China $300,000 to $600,000 at minimum, they're going to get $60,000 out of it."
Law enforcement officials are looking out for shipments of chemicals at the ports in Georgia. They're tracking them through distributors and the tricks being used to smuggle them in.
"You'll see it labeled as pigments, dyes, plant food, powders and any other type of chemical product," said Lynn Brennen with Customs and Border Protection.
"The obvious target market here is the young teen to the mid to late 20s," said Ken Howard, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation’s synthetic drugs expert.
But he said in metro Atlanta, young people are buying the drugs, as well as distributing them.
"The majority of our local distributors are high school educated at best, and are living in large, upscale townhouses in the more affluent areas," Howard said.
Georgia has tried banning some of the chemicals coming from China, but it has been an on-going battle. Howard said Chinese chemists are paying attention.
"We've learned that the chemical supply companies in China monitor very close what the state legislature is doing in Georgia," Howard said. "They'll reach out to their distributor in Atlanta and say, 'We already have your new stuff on deck. That's what we're sending you.'"
Federal authorities are teaming up with state and local law enforcement to stomp on the business in Georgia, and it's starting to work. Channel 2 Action News has covered several raids in the past few months, including one at a Smoke 911 shop in Cherokee County.
Phil Price with the Cherokee Multi-Agency Narcotics Squad said even during the raid, addicts were still trying to score.
"You watch them walk across the parking lot in almost a trance like state and try to get into the store, even though they see police there," Price said.
In recent weeks, Georgia has banned several more molecular variations of the chemicals used to make synthetic drugs, but law enforcement officials said with chemists monitoring those moves, new variations could keep popping up.