Synthetic cannabinoids have become a tremendous product in the Houston area, and a recent bust of 15 refugees is putting a stop to part of the problem. The illegal product is sold under the drug name “kush” and is a chemical compound that is made to mirror the effects of marijuana.
The recent bust ended in the refugees being arrested, and a significant amount of cash seized. Federal officials have asked permission to seize up to $35 million in the case that was tied to the sale of the product.
One of the men arrested, Muhammad Shariq Siddiqi, has been identified as the kingpin. At one time he employed a large team of workers that made the synthetic compound in cement mixers on a Texas farm.
Once the compound is made, it is sprayed on plant leaves that resemble marijuana plants and allowed to dry. The dried leaves with the chemicals on them become a hot product for local retailers.
Siddiqi was responsible for making and then distributing millions of dollars of kush onto the market in the Houston area. His efforts to position himself as a vital part of the local drug market went mostly under the radar of officials until his young son made a mistake at school.
The child was seen passing out $20 and $100 bills at school and drew the attention of school staff. They were not sure where the money was coming from and contacted officials.
The Siddiqi family was living well beyond the means of the average refugee, and this was a red flag for government officials. The elder Siddiqi is a 48-year-old father of 7 who immigrated to the United States from Pakistan.
The extravagant lifestyle of the family tipped off authorities to their illegal activities. Over the course of two years, they bought three gas stations, two smoke shops to sell kush, several high-end cars and over $3 million in other real estate holdings.
After the initial investigation, Siddiqi was arrested with another man. The other man was a popular assistant professor at the University of Houston at Victoria. His name was Omar Maher Alnasser. Alnasser was the first to confess his involvement in the local drug trade. He admitted to running an illegal business that wired a total of $200,000 of drug profits to accounts in Jordan. He has been sentenced to a year in federal prison but may also face more charges.
The raid that resulted in the first two arrests also set off a chain of events that added up to a total of 15 arrests. Dating back to April of 2016, the raid also led to the arrest of 42-year-old Khalil Munier Khalil. He took a plea on charges of “…conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute the drug” on October 26th. There are several other pending charges against Khalil that may be dropped due to the deal.
Siddiqi is the third person tied to the raid that is taking a plea deal. He agreed to plead guilty on “…one count of conspiracy to possess multiple formulations of synthetic cannabinoids.” A part of the deal includes the family forfeiting millions of dollars in profits from the drug sales. He is also not allowed to appeal the case and will cooperate with the ongoing investigation.
There are still charges pending against 15 other men tied to the kush ring. All but two of the men are currently in federal custody. Authorities are still searching for 56-year-old Ziad Mahmoud Alsalameh and 33-year-old Aqil Khader.
Both Alsalameh and Khader are from Texas and believed to still be in the area. They are classified as being fugitives from justice and have active warrants for arrest. Authorities are asking that anyone with information about their location contact the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) directly at 713-693-3000.
The others who are already in federal custody are expected to take plea deals as well shortly. Each of the men initially stated they were innocent of the charges but have had their attornies schedule hearings to change those pleas. The details of those agreements have not been released as of yet.