Suppliers of designer psychedelic drugs who sold their wares on the internet face potential life terms in prison as their cases come up for sentencing this month.
Bad Trip for Online Drug Peddlers
In a sting dubbed "Operation Web Tryp" that was carried out last year, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration shut down five websites and arrested 10 site operators in Louisiana, New York, Virginia and California for selling lab-pure psychedelics online.
See photoKnown euphemistically as "research chemicals," the drugs come from the same chemical families as LSD (tryptamines) and mescaline (phenethylamines), but are too new to have street names. Instead, they're referred to by abbreviated lab names such as 5-MeO-AMT, 2-CT-7 and DiPT.
Ingestion of research chemicals results in mind-altering and emotion-amplifying effects similar to those experienced by users of more well-known psychedelics.
Most are far too psychedelically powerful for recreational drug users. Instead they are championed by psychonauts -- drug hobbyists and experimenters, usually young men -- who experiment alone or in small groups, sharing information and "trip reports" online.
"They use them for spiritual exploration, psychotherapeutic work or just recreational use," said "Murple," an independent researcher who asked that his real name not be printed. He documents the use of psychedelics for sites like Erowid.
The first commercial research-chemical sites appeared about five years ago to cater to this small underground community. The industry grew slowly and hit its peak two years ago, with big sites like AmericanChemicalSuppply.com and OmegaFineChemicals.com dominating.
Some openly advertised on Google. Others chose to market virally, seeding chat forums and drug discussion groups with mentions of their products.
All handled thousands of orders every week from the United States and Europe, using the tools of e-commerce to accelerate business. Most offered one-click shopping systems and let buyers make payments using credit cards, PayPal or Western Union. Once ordered, drugs were delivered the next day by UPS and other carriers, internationally if necessary.
RacResearch.com, based in New York, offered more than 20 different drugs for sale, with prices starting at $50 and rising to $350 per gram (excluding delivery) for more potent and exotic substances like 5-MeO-DMT, a synthetic version of the powerful psychoactive found in the venom of the Bufo alvarius toad. The site made more than $500,000 in 14 months.
Another site -- pondman.nu -- appeared to be a landscape-gardening business, specializing in fish and aquatic supplies. A link, however, led to a full-scale research chemicals order page. Police put the estimated weekly revenue at around $20,000.
The sites competed among themselves for the best customer service, the purest product and the fastest deliveries. Seasonal offers, 3-for-2 deals and free sample packs were commonplace.
Despite its high profile and brazen online advertising, the trade remained undetected by law enforcement for five years until a "rave-style party" was busted at Hampton Roads Naval Base in Virginia. Sailors arrested for selling narcotics at the event, police discovered, had bought their drugs in bulk online. The investigation grew and finally led to a multi-state DEA sting in July 2004.
Thanks to their novelty, most research chemicals are not specifically listed as controlled substances under U.S. drug laws. Many site operators and customers believed, erroneously, that this made the drugs legal, or at least left them in a gray area that would protect them from prosecution.
However, under the Federal Analogue Act the possession and supply of substances "substantially similar" in effect or chemical structure to controlled drugs is illegal. In May, in the first prosecution resulting from the sting operation, a jury found David Linder of Bullhead City, Arizona, webmaster of pondman.nu, guilty on 27 charges, including drug conspiracy and money laundering. He was sentenced to a total of 410 years in prison -- and ordered to pay back $700,000 in profits from the website. Linder, 52, is hoping to appeal.
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, or AMT, purchased from Linder's site, prosecutors said.
Others arrested during the sting are due to be sentenced over the next two months. Michael Burton, operator of AmericanChemicalSupply.com, faces an expected life term this month after a 21-year-old customer from Louisiana fatally overdosed on one of his products.
According to the DEA, the research-chemicals industry has been the direct cause of two deaths and a further 14 nonfatal overdoses.
"Deaths from use of designer psychedelics however appear to be isolated tragedies due to irresponsible use rather than the norm," said Murple. "Like MDMA, when used with proper precautions, the majority of the chemicals seem to be relatively harmless -- if not out-and-out pleasurable."
However, those who document their use stress the dangers of reckless experimentation. Erowid, for example, uses a version of the biohazard warning symbol to designate all research chemicals.
"It is not reasonable to assume that these chemicals are in any way 'safe' to use recreationally," reads the site's disclaimer, which notes that users' reactions to research chemicals can vary wildly, with adverse effects ranging from bad trips to fatal overdoses.
It is unclear whether those who purchased the drugs online will also face prosecution. Credit-card information from customers in the United Kingdom was handed over to British police who carried out a series of dawn raids last December. More than 20 individuals were arrested and charged with possession with intent to supply. Many face potential prison sentences. There are no reports of any U.S. customers being arrested.
The commercial research-chemicals trade is for the most part no longer active.
"Some chemicals still appear to be available from websites in China," said Murple. "My gut feeling though is that they are largely scams."
Research chemical use continues underground, however, said Murple, and will "as long as there are people interested in psychedelics who have internet connections."
There are currently more than a hundred research chemicals in existence. Many are the invention of California biochemist Alexander Shulgin. A one-time expert witness for the DEA, the 80-year-old is famed for his work in developing a recipe for MDMA (ecstasy) back in the '70s.
Shulgin predicts there will be around 2,000 new psychoactive drugs by 2050.
Underground chemists use the detailed recipes published in his books -- Tikhal and Phikal -- to synthesize new experimental drugs and novel variants of existing psychoactives, many of which slip through the gaps in international drug legislation.
His take: "I make unknown materials. It's the government's job to make them illegal."
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