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Changing Chemistry in Synthetic Drugs Poses Challenges for Law Enforcement


Law enforcement officials and prosecutors are finding it difficult to win convictions against makers of synthetic drugs, who are constantly changing the chemistry of the products to stay one step ahead of the law.

The Wall Street Journal reports the synthetic drugs known as “bath salts” can cause reactions ranging from hallucinations to extreme paranoia or the feeling of burning skin, causing some people to tear their clothes off.

In order to convict a synthetic drug maker, officials must prove the person sold the drug, and that the drug was substantially similar to a specifically banned substance, the article notes. All a drug maker has to do is make small chemical changes to the products so they are not considered “analogues,” or chemical compounds that are similar to banned drugs.

In June, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and authorities in three other countries announced the arrests of dozens of people involved in trafficking designer drugs such as bath salts and synthetic marijuana. In the United States, the enforcement operations took place in 49 cities, and targeted retailers, wholesalers and manufacturers. The operations included more than 150 arrest warrants and almost 375 search warrants.

“There’s no way that the DEA can keep up with the sophisticated chemists around the world who are making this stuff,” Timothy Heaphy, U.S. attorney for the Western District of Virginia, told the newspaper. Heaphy’s office won a bath salts conviction earlier this year, only the second such prosecution. One of the prosecutors at the trial, Joe Platania, added, “The bad guys know what we do and they just tweak another molecule. They’re changing faster than we can write our names.”

When local DEA offices issue warning letters to convenience stores and retail shops to stop selling bath salts, many store managers say they didn’t know the actual uses of the product.

8 Responses to this article

  1. Joe Miller / August 19, 2013 at 5:23 pm

    This is not a problem we can arrest our way out of and attempting to do so is foolish, ill-conceived, and not consistent with the lessons of history. The answers to our problems are in education and treatment not criminalization. Otherwise we’re just creating and perpetuating horrors that go way beyond the problems of use and/or addiction.

  2. Avatar of Bob
    Bob / August 19, 2013 at 12:56 pm

    Even if we “ban” categories such as synthetic cannabinoids or cannabinomimetics or cathinones; we still have to find a chemist (who can convince a jury or judge) that the chemical(s) found in the substance(s) seized is in fact something banned by definition. This is extremely difficult. And the defense will be paying his “expert” to say just the opposite. A battle of the chemists in court will usually end up in a popularity contest (whose expert is more likeable) and we cannot risk bad case law. These synthetics will likely prove nearly impossible to stop and tragically there are far too many people out there trying to fill the “hole in their soul” with anything they can get their hands on.

  3. Avatar of Kevin Odenbaugh
    Kevin Odenbaugh / August 16, 2013 at 3:01 pm

    Here’s a thought…..
    Forget about trying to keep up with the exact analouges and such, simply prohibit the Manuafactor, Sales, Possession, Use or being under the Influecne of ANY SUBSTANCE that is being Manufactures, Sold, Possessed or Used with the intent to modify one’s mood or behaviour, without a current US Doctor’s Rx. Pretty simple, but effective. Just a thought.

  4. Skip Sviokla MD ABAM / August 16, 2013 at 1:01 pm

    Detection might be more difficult, but the addictive behavior remains as expected.

  5. jboside / August 15, 2013 at 5:21 pm

    Dear Mr. Bettin individuals are not being arrested for use, they are arrested for things they do while they are on these drugs.

  6. Phillip Bettin / August 15, 2013 at 1:14 pm

    Instead of going after the specific drugs, can’t the DEA go after the lab and the chemists they are most likely clandestine labs and I am quite sure the chemist and the labs are not operating legally. If you shut off the source you don’t have to arrest the addict, who in a lot of ways is the guinea pig for all drug dealers who are out to make money at the expense of human life.

  7. Kevin Odenbaugh / August 16, 2013 at 3:04 pm

    In Calfiornia Law Enforement are useing 647(f)PC for Probable Cause for the arrest, but rarley results in any conviction. BUT, it gets the imparied person off the streets for atleast 24 hours. TURE, that other violations occur while the user is under the influence.

  8. Avatar of thetruthwillsetyoufree
    thetruthwillsetyoufree / September 12, 2013 at 11:49 pm

    Actually all of these “bath salts” also know as research chemicals are produced on an industrial scale in China. The operations are legitimate in the eyes of the Chinese government and the “bath salts” are legally shipped by the kilogram to US and UK distributors.

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