With Labs Pumping Out Legal Highs, China Is the New Front in the Global Drug War

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The drugs arrived in an “unnamed, unmarked package,” recalls Timothy LaMere. The rest of what happened that night is more of a blur. After sharing the 2C-E — a synthetic imitation of the rave drug ecstasy — with friends at a house party in Blaine, Minn., things started to go very wrong. Those who took the drug became dangerously unwell — sweating, shaking, rolling around on the floor and experiencing seizures and severe pain. LaMere was among 10 people hospitalized, while one friend, 19-year-old Trevor Robinson, father of a 5-month-old baby, died after “punching walls, breaking items, staring and having dilated pupils and yelling,” according to the criminal complaint. LaMere is currently serving a 10-year sentence for third-degree unintentional murder in a state correctional facility. “I feel horrible. I feel horrible for Trevor’s family — I was close to his mum before — and I feel horrible for anyone who knew him,” he tells TIME.

The 2C-E that LaMere purchased online is part of the latest drug scourge of new psychoactive substances (NPS), dubbed “legal highs,” to blight not only the U.S. but countries all over the world. Their growing popularity opens up a new front in the drug war, shifting the front line from the Colombian jungles, Afghan hills and Winnebagos of New Mexico to the laboratories of Shanghai and other Chinese cities, where, according to the DEA, legal highs are typically produced.

Almost 90% of countries surveyed for the 2013 U.N. World Drugs Report attributed synthetic drugs a significant market share. Suburban laboratories around Chinese port cities are the principle source, from where they can be easily shipped to Europe or North America using regular international courier services. These new drugs are specifically created to mimic the effects of illicit street drugs such as cocaine and cannabis while skirting legal prohibitions. The labeling on packages uses a variety of fanciful descriptions — such as “plant food,” “bath salts” or even “potpourri” — and usually includes the token proviso “not for human consumption.” Yet the brand names used (“Benzo Fury,” “The Joker” and “Blaze”), the psychedelic wrapping and their sale alongside drug impedimenta such as glass pipes and bongs leaves no doubt as to their true purpose.

(PHOTOS: Live Through This: Documenting One Woman’s Struggle With Heroin)

At present, over 200 such substances exist with more created every day. As soon as one variation is explicitly banned, the chemists tweak the molecules and “it changes the whole structure of the drug, so the drug becomes legal and we’re at it again,” James Capra, DEA chief of operations, said at a news conference in June. To make matters worse, Chinese chemists are not just sitting back waiting for their products to be made illegal. Often they have already created the next variation of a substance and have it ready to hit the streets before the ink on the banning order of its parent drug has dried. The subtle changes in the formulas can also have lethal effects. “Every time you alter that molecule, you could end up with a drug that is better or you could theoretically make a monster,” Dr. Mark Ryan, director of the Louisiana Poison Center, tells TIME.

In the U.S., 11% of 17- and 18-year-olds admit to using legal highs, and they are now the second most popular class of recreational drug among American students after cannabis. Despite being marketed as legal and even low-risk, many are actually more dangerous than traditional narcotics. Products such as “Spice” and “K2” are sold as a kind of legal cannabis, but in reality comprise plant leaves and stems laced with an assortment of toxic chemicals that can lead to psychosis, hallucinations, delusions, extreme paranoia and even death. The U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reported 28,531 emergency-department visits involving a synthetic cannabinoid during 2011, more than double the previous year. These substances have been linked with teens shooting themselves, athletes collapsing and dying and even the gruesome devouring of a family dog. “You don’t murder people high on marijuana,” says Ryan. “People who smoke marijuana end up at a convenience store buying a honeybun and carton of orange juice.”

At wholesale, compounds are sold as “research chemicals” — albeit in quantities far higher than would be required for any legitimate research — and arranging supply is as easy as a Google search. TIME provisionally arranged an order of 100 g (around 800 hits) of the banned ecstasy-like hallucinogen 2C-B — a close relative to LaMere’s deadly 2C-E — to be delivered for $630. But that was not all. “To the main order we are pleased to offer you [free] samples to test: MDPV, 5-IAI, 6-APDB, Methylone bk-MDMA, 4-FMP, 4-MeO-PCP, five grams each,” said Ms. Ren, manager of Legal Powders Ltd. in Dalian, northeast China, by e-mail. Payment was asked for via bank transfer, Western Union or Moneygram.

(MORE: Should the FDA Regulate Recreational Drugs?)

The problem is that “dozens” of laboratories produce these chemicals across China without any meaningful regulation, says Wynbo Shi, senior regulatory-affairs manager for the Hangzhou-based Chemical Inspection & Regulation Service Ltd., an independent consultancy firm. According to Shi, firms in China intending to sell cosmetics or drugs need to get a license to do so. However, “after you have got a license there’s no enforcement or inspection,” he explains, adding that many companies exploit a loophole by telling the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) that they are manufacturing pharmaceuticals, while simultaneously informing the China Food and Drug Administration that they are making research chemicals. “There is no collaboration between those authorities and no inspection enforcement, so companies in China can manufacture these chemicals without any regulatory challenges,” Shi says.

More worryingly, several marketed chemicals cannot legally be sold in any case, because they are so new that they do not appear on the MEP register. Many unregistered substances like 5-MAPB — designed as a legal replacement for 6-APDB (Benzo Fury) — can be found openly for sale on the Internet. And there is no problem with supply. Cyprus-based website drsynthetic.com offers “stimulants, cannabinoids and hallucinogenic [chemicals]” from “our laboratory in China” with up to “1 kilo per day per client of any kind of our products. We work fast and discreet.”

The DEA has described combating legal highs as a “priority” and in June launched the largest-ever bust of a global synthetic-drugs ring. Project Synergy seized thousands of pounds of illicit drugs and saw the arrest of 225 people in five countries. The same month, members of the G-8 group of nations signed an agreement to share information and intelligence regarding legal highs.

(MORE: Thai Dealers Push Candy-Flavored Methamphetamine on Kids Outside Schools)

American lawmakers have meanwhile turned to banning broad classes or base molecules rather than specific compounds, although this comes with additional problems, says Ryan, as chemists simply search wider for alternatives that achieve a similar “high” and encounter greater unknowns (and so risks) as a consequence. This tactic is also controversial as many consumers only learn that substances are in fact outlawed when a case reaches the courtroom, with law enforcement penalizing the users rather than preventing the drugs entering the country at source.

This legal obfuscation leaves many bewildered. “Honestly, the main motivator for using [synthetic drugs] was that I thought they were unscheduled and a legal alternative,” says LaMere. When Robinson died in March 2011, 2-CE was deemed subject to a federal law banning substances chemically similar or producing a similar effect to illegal substances — but it was not a scheduled drug. Only three months later was it explicitly included on the statute books.

Despite attempts to impose blanket curbs, law-enforcement efforts are “floundering,” says the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime. Nevertheless, the body is reluctant to heap blame on Beijing. UNODC regional expert Tun Nay Soe says, “If the [Chinese] government decides that these substances should be placed under national control, as ketamine and mephedrone have [been], they will do so.”

Back in Minnesota, LaMere is left with a lifetime of regret. “There’s not a day that goes by when I don’t think about Trevor,” he says. “Every day the first thing I do is look at his picture on my bulletin board in my room and say a prayer for his family.” With tons of synthetic drugs emerging from Chinese laboratories every day, and countless new varieties in the pipeline, many more could be joining LaMere in similarly somber rituals.

MORE: U.N. Admits Drug War Is ‘Floundering,’ but Is Regulating Recreational Drugs the Answer?

28 comments
vilmateodoro5
vilmateodoro5

It is shocking to me that synthetic medicines are even being produced and distributed. I wonder about the quality of the laboratories that they have in China because of lack of regulations. Trevor's story is heartbreaking. It makes me wonder about other chemicals that go into medicines that come from out of the country.  

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sscammer2010
sscammer2010

DeboraLabs.com (Denmark) middle man labs in SHANGAI EMS CHINA



jjanlitt44
jjanlitt44

If there wasn't a demand supply wouldn't exist especially when you realize that these illegal substances are not backed by billion dollar advertising & marketing budgets that persuade people to use them.  Which is why I'm dead set against legalization which would create hundreds of millions of useless drug addicts from cradle to grave in a stagnant, decaying, unproductive society where progress would come to a complete stop.  Wonder what would happen if the govt. stopped subsidizing rehab centers?  What happens if these users are left to face the consequences of their actions?  Either they would go cold turkey in jail or would die from overdoses?  I'm tired of understanding my compassion has run dry.

jway87
jway87

Legalize marijuana. Legalize marijuana. Legalize marijuana. If you want to have less people using these dangerous drugs, and therefore less harm being caused by them, then legalize marijuana like beer and wine and give people the right to choose this FAR safer alternative to alcohol!

herbalmagick
herbalmagick

These legal highs are equivalent to the bathtub gin and booze cut with wood alcohol from America's last Great Prohibition.

People are being poisoned because the well-tested and relatively safe drugs they really want aren't legal.  Only when these well-tested recreational substances are legally available in unadulterated form and known dosage will we end the current madness.  Prohibition means that there is no control of "controlled substances".  Manufacture and distribution are entirely in the hands of criminals.  Legalization and regulation may not be a lot of people's idea of Utopia, but it has to be better than the world's kids being guinea pigs for Chinese psychochemists.

mrmichaelpower
mrmichaelpower

My name is Mike Power, and I've written a book on this subject and it covers the history, the cultural context, the legal issues, and the health effects of the latest failure of international drug policy. It's called 'Drugs 2.0 - the web revolution that's changing how the world gets high' and you'll find it in the usual places. 

By the way, the drug Time tried to buy in this story, 2CB? 

It's illegal, not legal in the USA. It's banned nearly everywhere in the world. 

And the shop they tried to buy it from? It's a scam... But if they'd read my book, they'd know how to work stuff like that out. And I have to say it is irresponsible to send readers, with a LINK! to an online drug dealer. Never heard of an unintended consequence? Sure, the whole world is googleable now, but journalists have a responsibility here too. 

KarenWilson
KarenWilson

This is the fruits of prohibition. This cat and mouse game would not be happening if pot, LSD, shrooms, MDMA et al, were legal, regulated and taxed. People would know what they were getting.

The war on drugs is a total failure for the people. The politicians, cops, and jailers benifit. We lose. End the madness.

WhatsInMyBaggie
WhatsInMyBaggie

I am working on a documentary project titled "What's In My Baggie? A Documentary on the Rise of Misrepresented Substances in America."

NO ONE KNOWS WHAT THEY ARE TAKING.

Nearly 100% of substances are cut with one or more adulterant. More often than not, Synthetic Cathinones more commonly referred to as “Bath Salts” are being sold as misrepresented MDMA, whereas “LSD” is replaced with a wide variety of Research Chemicals that induce similar psychoactive effects.

Organizations like The Bunk Police & DanceSafe (just to name a few) attend these festivals, and are often forced to distribute their Substance Test Kits under the radar and with risk of punishment from festival organizers, or worse, law enforcement.

XiraArien1
XiraArien1

So, uh, maybe legalize the less harmful stuff rather than leave people with no alternative than to try super-dangerous and possibly fatal but legal alternatives?

Really, this is just another way to generate profits for the prison-industrial complex. If the good stuff were sold over the count, sourced from government-inspected labs run by major companies, there would be much less pain and death.

http://llltexas.com <- my blog

jacoutofthebox
jacoutofthebox

@blackChinahand Sorry to say this... I see some sort of implosion within China. :( Will be in Shanghai in 3 weeks. Curious to see evolution.

adlord
adlord

This would stop in about 10 seconds if some Chinese kids ended up dead as a result.  It wouldn't suprise me at all if the companies worked real hard to make sure they are only available in western countries.

deetler
deetler

You can't have your cake and eat it too. The US has been lobbying China to open up and deregulate its markets ever since the Chinese economic reforms began 30 years ago. We also make propaganda about how entrepreneurship and innovation are  the hallmarks of our economy and can only be emulated when free markets reign. But when the Chinese take us at our word and let markets work with little supervision or regulation and Chinese entrepreneurs, be they chemists or engineers, take up the challenge to develop new products, we freak out.

mlouisa70394
mlouisa70394

Why should the Chinese government do anything about this - this is just another way for China to destroy western countries.  Not only do we buy their toys, now we're buying their drugs.

SamWood
SamWood

If your only getting 800 hits out of 100g no wonder matey OD'd, 100g of 2ce is like 10,000 doses!!

Capitalist4life
Capitalist4life

@jjanlitt44 You have no right to jail a person because you disagree with his/her personal decisions. You sicken me. 

jjanlitt44
jjanlitt44

@jway87 we don't need more dope addicts involved in DUI's saying its like beer & wine means nothing.  Alcohol already causes enough fatalities.  How about giving offenders a bullet to the skull if they take someone's life in a DUI?  If they do bodily harm then they should make restitution in the form of paying the victim's medical & therapy costs in addition to payments for pain & suffering.   The last thing any workplace needs is more out of control useless, irresponsible drug addicts.

jjanlitt44
jjanlitt44

@herbalmagick No way should the govt. legalize poison in any dosage.  Users are criminals more so than suppliers who are giving these lawbreaking idiots what they want.  Their demands for illegal substances drive crime regardless of the consequences & warnings.  Whether it was legalized or not each addicts cravings would demand higher doses.  To hell with them!  We are lectured on the dangers of drug use & addiction from first grade on through high school.  Everyone knows the risks.  These idiot druggies would shoot bleach & snort ammonia if given the chance.  C'mon bath salts?  Really?  No chemical is safe from such sickos who abuse cold pills & other legal medicines.  Let 'em die off.  With all the education & rehab the problem has become worse.  Let em drug til they die off.  Clearly there are no solutions to these disturbs individuals so just let them destroy themselves.   Its what they want to do anyway.

TheRevJimBob
TheRevJimBob

@KarenWilson 

Exactly right!

Prohibition means that these new, dangerous and untested chemicals are rife. They are all trying to mimic already existing illegal drugs, which are usually (especially in the case of MDMA, which a lot of them try to copy) are far, far safer than the drugs which are replacing them.

Legal highs, and the growing phenomenon of buying illegal drugs online, will surely be the death of prohibition.

jjanlitt44
jjanlitt44

@XiraArien1 Druggies would still try the super dangerous stuff for the thrill of the high.  They like the risk.   The goal posts would keep moving for one chemical trend after another.

jjanlitt44
jjanlitt44

@adlord western countries are depraved countries willing to ingest poison despite all warnings.  Western nations weren't always heavy drug consumers.

jjanlitt44
jjanlitt44

@Soofy79 @TIME @TIMEWorld  Canada is the world's top producer of these synthetic drugs.  Ever since Bush ok'd the prescription drug exchange with Canadian drugmakers synthetic drugs have been finding their way over the border.  Canada is at the top of the UN list as the world's top synthetic drug supplier.  Of course, on the southern border Mexico is trafficking grass, coke, & more.  Seems the media has a huge ax to grind with China.  The media wants a war with China and the destruction of America.  Since a bunch of drug addicted troops & civilians can't be expected to win a war.  Face it the nation has become a land of empty druggies.

jjanlitt44
jjanlitt44

@mlouisa70394 America has been doping long before China got in the picture.  AMERICANS should blame themselves for their destruction.  Nobody holds a gun to people's head telling them to buy dope.  Cut the b.s.  People in America have become to lazy, self indulgent, decadent & pleasure seeking.