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.

    User Picture

    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.

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