When she’s not reading High Times or combing through directories of Chinese chemical manufacturers, Jill Head, the supervisory chemist in the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s Special Testing and Research Laboratory, is replicating new designer drugs.
The Virginia lab where Head works is the center of an international effort to stop a multibillion-dollar market for what have become known as legal highs. These are synthetic drugs that duplicate the experiences of LSD, marijuana, cocaine, ecstasy, and amphetamines. Because the lab-created compounds differ slightly in chemical structure from the illegal drugs they mimic, consumers of the drugs can claim their purchases from websites or head shops are legal. Many national governments have declared some of the new compounds illegal, but they have trouble keeping up. Since 2008 drugs with names like 2NE1, after a Korean girl band, and STS-135, which was NASA’s final space shuttle mission, have been popping up at a rate of one a week, according to the United Nations-affiliated International Narcotics Control Board.
National law enforcement agencies have acted pretty much on their own in the fight against synthetics. In July 2012, Congress voted to list 26 new chemicals under the Controlled Substances Act. Japan has banned 54 compounds. This approach, says Narcotics Control Board President Raymond Yans, makes no sense. The drugs are “sold over the Internet from countries where it’s legal to countries where it’s illegal.” The profits can be enormous. Synthetic marijuana, often labeled “plant food” to confuse police, can earn retail profits of $90,000 to $136,000 a pound—compared with $1,000 to $5,000 for the real stuff.
In March the Narcotics Control Board labeled new psychoactive substances the fastest-growing category of drugs in the world and identified more than 1,000 compounds that have entered the market since 2008. Yans says this is the first move toward creating an international list of new controlled substances. That effort got a boost shortly after the list was released when 55 countries voted to create an international early warning system. The system, to be coordinated through the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, will enable countries to share data quickly when investigators first hear of new compounds, such as when people in chat rooms compare notes on the latest designer drug.
When the international early warning gets under way, countries with sophisticated labs like the U.S. will be able to pass information to countries that haven’t studied the drugs, potentially shortening the time it takes to ban them. Currently investigators aren’t fast enough to prevent serious harm; according to the U.S. Drug Abuse Warning Network, some 28,000 emergency room visits in 2011 were caused by known marijuana synthetics, more than double the 2010 number.
Legal systems for banning drugs aren’t set up to handle a market in which a new drug emerges weekly. “To have the flood of substances we’ve had is unprecedented,” says DEA Supervisory Special Agent Robert Bell. In 15 countries, prosecutors rely on “analog statutes,” which permit officials to ban unknown compounds similar to known drugs—and jail those caught with them in their possession.
Proving chemical similarity down to the molecular level is tricky. Court cases often turn into a “battle of the experts,” says DEA spokesman Rusty Payne. Demonstrating that a new drug has the same effect as a known drug can take years of research, hence Head’s rush to recreate the synthetics. The statutes usually require prosecutors to show that manufacturers made the drugs for human use, while the merchants of the synthetics deliberately label them as “not for human consumption.” Prosecutors can often prove that the drugs are meant to be snorted or smoked; undercover agents have goaded store owners into admitting it. But it becomes difficult to prove their case as prosecutors go further up the supply chain.
Chinese manufacturers are the main suppliers of the chemical compounds used in synthetics, says Yans: Most of the suspect ingredients are legal there. After four years of meetings with the Chinese, U.S. officials can point to a single success: pushing China to prohibit mephedrone, a cocaine synthetic that’s marketed in the U.S. as bath salts. “They’re at the table talking with the U.S. That’s a positive thing,” says Bell, who doesn’t seem optimistic. “You’re talking about tracing links in the supply chain back to a rogue foreign laboratory. It’s tough.”