Source: The Guardian
Date: 26 May 2005

Dawn raids mark crash of online designer drugs trade

Trail of electronic data from US websites leads to
convictions for Britons buying psychedelic drugs on net

David McCandless

Police have arrested and prosecuted more than 22 British customers of websites selling class A designer drugs online after a trail of electronic evidence from busted websites in the US led police to addresses across the UK. The psychedelics drugs, known euphemistically as "research chemicals", have been sold for several years openly on the internet from websites based in the US. The US drug enforcement administration shut down the sites and arrested the owners last year after two deaths, and several cases of people needing hospital treatment in the US, were linked to the use of chemicals bought online.

Customer records and credit-card details extracted from seized computers were passed on to the national crime squad in the UK.

Once investigators had verified the intelligence, details were sent out to police forces. In a countrywide action, named Operation Ismene, the police carried out dawn raids in 14 counties, including Avon and Somerset, Greater Manchester, and Leicestershire. Court cases this month saw several people given fines or community service.

A variety of synthetic drugs were confiscated in the raids, including 2C-I, a new psychedelic drug growing in popularity on the UK dance scene and described as "the new ecstasy".

Frequently "research chemicals" have euphoric and visual effects similar to that caused by mescaline, ecstasy (also known as MDMA) and LSD. The majority do not have street names and are known only by their abbreviated lab names, such as 5-Meo-DMT, 2-CT-2, and AMT. Most are too powerful psychedelically to catch on with users or dealers, and have only been available via the internet.

The burgeoning online trade in these chemicals was first revealed in the Guardian last year. The trade has flourished in the past five years as law enforcement has struggled to keep ahead of fast-moving technology. Online outfits have been able to create a worldwide customer base for designer drugs by subverting the infrastructure laid down by legitimate e-commerce such as international couriers and online credit-card systems.

At the same time, chemists working "underground" routinely synthesise new drugs to slip through the gaps in international drugs legislation.

The trade only came to the broad attention of US law enforcers after a death in Louisiana last year. In March 2004, James Downs, 22, died after an accidental overdose of powdered 2-CT-21 he ordered online. Police investigating his death traced his purchases to a Las Vegas "research chemicals" website (americanchemicalsupply.com), one of several professional operations importing such chemicals from labs in China and India. The websites were shutdown in a US-wide sting in July 2004 known as Operation Web Tryp.

Court documents have revealed the extent, sophistication and success of these e-businesses. Each website had thousands of customers in the US and Europe. The public was able to order a selection of drugs with "one-click" systems of payment via credit card or Paypal. Ordered drugs were delivered next day by Fedex and other carriers.

Some sites traded openly while others were more clandestine. All the websites, including those mentioned here, have been closed down now.

RacResearch.com, based in New York, ran a slick modern site offering broad selections of up to 20 drugs with free sample packs for first-time customers. Adverts for the site appeared on Google. Another site - www.pondman.nu - appeared to be selling fish and pond supplies but was a sophisticated e-commerce drug operation. Police estimate some sites were making around $20,000 (about 11,000) a week.

So-called research chemicals are not officially listed as controlled substances under US drugs laws. However, the website operators were prosecuted under a law that prohibits the possession and supply of chemicals "substantially similar" to controlled drugs. All the operators face likely life sentences. Several have been charged additionally with causing death or serious injury.

Last week the operator of pondman.nu - 52-year-old David Linder - was found guilty on 27 charges, including drug conspiracy and money laundering. He was sentenced to a total of 410 years in prison. He was also ordered to pay back $700,000 (389,000) in profits from the website. The severity of his sentence was related in part to the death of an 18-year-old man in New York who overdosed on the drug alpha-methyltryptamine (AMT) purchased from Linder's site.

Deaths caused by research chemicals, however, appear to be isolated tragedies. Like ecstasy, most of the chemicals seem to be physically harmless at low or average doses. The underground websites documenting their use advise extreme caution. Despite glowing reports of "wow" type experiences, the site Erowid.org carries the disclaimer: "It is not reasonable to assume that these chemicals are in any way 'safe' to use recreationally."

Because the recommended dosages can vary by as little as a thousandths of a gram, a slight miscalculation can trigger an overdose. When smoked, just 2mg (a dose smaller than a grain of salt) of the potent chemical 5-MeO-DMT can cause a short-lived but powerful "trip". Heavy doses, or overdoses, have been known to trigger undesirable physical and psychological symptoms including profound anxiety, "bad trips", overheating of the body, and even death.

Thanks to the psychedelic intensity of these drugs, few of the chemicals have made it as street or club drugs. Their use is generally championed by "psychonauts", drug hobbyists, usually young men, who experiment alone or in small groups, exchanging information online.

Many of those arrested in the UK seem to have fallen into this category. Among those arrested have been students, primary-school workers and people running lifestyle drugs outfits. They were not primarily career criminals or drug dealers. Although initially arrested on suspicion of intent to supply, many saw their charges altered to simple possession.

The national crime squad would not comment yesterday on whether there would be more arrests.

The UK has the strictest laws in the EU on designer drugs. The Misuse Of Drugs Act was amended in 2002 to include a "catch most" clause outlawing every drug, and possible future drug, from the LSD (tryptamine) and ecstasy (phenethylamine) chemical families. The amendment is a virtual cut-and-paste from the books of the respected American biochemist Alexander Shulgin, who obtained a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley. Dr Shulgin, a former research chemist at the Dow Chemical Company, re-discovered the recipe for MDMA in 1976 and published the recipes for more than 170 designer drugs of his own invention.

While research chemicals are still available from websites in China, India and Japan, the illicit online drugs trade has gone underground as law enforcers have become more skilled at tracking hi-tech crime. "A drug supply route between the US and the UK has been dismantled," said Jim Gamble, deputy director-general of the national crime squad. "Anyone considering purchasing drugs online should think again, the crime squad and other law enforcement agencies will track you down."


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