Chinese chemical engineer sentenced on drug import charges

File photo
File photo

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – A 36-year-old Chinese national has been sentenced to four years and two months in federal prison for conspiracy to import drugs and was forced to forfeit $1.5 million seized from his Swiss bank account.

Wei Zhang, also known as David Liteng, was charged with conspiring to import controlled substance analogues (synthetic cannabinoids), knowing they were intended for human consumption, and aiding and abetting the importation of controlled substances and cathinones, also known as “bath salts.”

According to court documents, in late 2010, an individual met with Dan and Kevin Louie, the owners and operators of Source1Herbs, in Toronto, Canada. Source1Herbs was a large wholesale business that sold synthetic cannabinoids and cathinones. This individual met with the owners and learned that their Chinese-based supplier was Zhang. In October 2010, the individual made contact with Zhang and discussed ordering chemicals from him directly.

In late February 2011, the individual and his business partner traveled to China and met with the suppliers, including Zhang. 

During these meetings, the individual and Zhang discussed finding a replacement chemical for 1-pentyl-3-(1-napthoyl)indole JWH-018, which was set to be temporarily listed as a Schedule I controlled substance by the Drug Enforcement Adminstration on March 1, 2011. As a result of the meeting, the individual obtained a more favorable pricing from Zhang for synthetic chemicals. 

Zhang, a chemical engineer, explained the best chemical alternatives for JWH-018 that would give the end user a similar high, including stimulant and hallucinogenic effects.

On March 1, 2011, Zhang and others exchanged email communications (including news articles) for specific chemicals banned that day, which included JWH-018. One such email from Zhang states, “Hi we know there will be ban jwh and similar product on 1th (sic) march. Pls let me know what happen tomorrow.”

When JWH-018 was placed on the DEA’s banned list, Zhang and others began selling other chemicals, including AM-2201, JWH-081, JWH-122, JWH-203, JWH-210, and JWH-250. Zhang routinely shipped large quantities of those chemicals to customers in the United States, Russia, and Europe, distributing a portion of the synthetic cannabinoids through mailing facilities in the Middle District of Florida.

From March 2011 through February 2012, Zhang shipped approximately 798 kilograms of the chemicals to the individual. In addition, he supplied Source1Herbs with large quantities of synthetic cannabinoids and cathinones.

In July 2013, Zhang and the individual had several discussions about synthetic cannabinoids, the latest trends in the worldwide industry, and the controlled status of certain chemicals, including UR-144, 5F-UR-144, and RCS-4. Zhang sent the individual various samples of synthetic chemicals known as 5 Meo Dalt (a synthetic cathinone), A834, 5F-UR-144, JWH-308, and WIN48098.

Zhang also discussed emerging synthetic cannabinoids PB-22 and 5F-PB-22, both of which were controlled substance analogues of JWH-018 at the time, and then later designated as Schedule I controlled substances.

After receiving a spreadsheet of Zhang’s inventory, the individual negotiated a purchase deal with Zhang for large quantities of UR-144, 5F-UR-144, and RCS-4. The negotiated price for approximately 773 kilograms of chemicals was $265,000, and Zhang agreed to provide the chemicals on consignment.

Zhang agreed to ship mislabeled parcels containing 2 or 3 kilograms of those substances per parcel to various mailing facilities within the Middle District of Florida.

From Feb. 3, 2014, through May 16, 2014, Homeland Security Investigations received 48 packages containing 144 kilograms of UR-144, 47 packages containing 106 kilograms of 5F-UR-144 (XLR-11), and eight packages containing 16 kilograms of RCS-4.

During the receipt of those packages, the individual further negotiated to pay Zhang $150,000 for the 266 kilograms of Schedule I controlled substances. In April 2014, Zhang traveled to the United States to retrieve $150,000 in cash for the substances, where he was ultimately arrested.

On May 7, 2014, the United States Treasury Department - Office of Foreign Asset Control used the Kingpin Act to designate Source1Herbs and Dan and Kevin Louie, both Canadian nationals, on the Specially Designated National List. The Kingpin Act permits the imposition of economic sanctions to preclude a variety of worldwide economic transactions.

Zhang’s conviction marks the third Chinese national convicted in the United States for importation of synthetic drugs.  Jin Liu was also prosecuted in the Middle District of Florida for conspiracy to import 100 kilograms of PB-22, a synthetic cannabinoid.

"This international investigation brings the first U.S. arrests and convictions of Chinese synthetic drug manufacturers and suppliers," said Susan L. McCormick, special agent in charge of HSI Tampa. "HSI special agents, working with the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office and the North Florida High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Task Force, have stopped these dangerous synthetic drugs from entering our communities.”

The case was investigated by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations.

The investigation was part of Special Operations Division Project Synergy.  The Special Operations Division, along with the Narcotic and Dangerous Drug Section of the Department of Justice, coordinated Project Synergy to investigate and prosecute the leaders in the synthetic drug business both domestically and internationally.