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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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