DEA jams synthetic marijuana and “bath salts” industry

With all the discord in Washington these days, it’s rare to see several US governmental organizations working together to address a significant public health problem.

This week, the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) mobilized Operation Log Jam, an unusual and highly-coordinated action with six other federal agencies aimed to shut down the synthetic designer drug industry in 109 US cities. The products targeted were of two broad classes: 1) synthetic marijuana “incense” products comprised of naphthoylindole cannabimimetic compounds first synthesized by John W. Huffman’s lab at Clemson in the mid-1990s, and 2) “bath salts” or “plant food” products containing the stimulant/empathogen mephedrone (4-methylmethcathinone) or the stimulant MDPV (3,4-methylenedioxypyrovalerone).

This compilation of posts on synthetic marijuana and, to a lesser extent, “bath salts” serves as a good primer on the subject.

The first coordinated attempt to prosecute the synthetic designer drug industry in the United States. Click on the map to go to the DEA source page and a large version of the map.

These products were sold widely on the internet, headshops, and convenience stores and were associated with 13,000 poison control calls last year, 60% of which were in individuals under 25. Disturbing acute and chronic side effects have been reported by users that include severe anxiety and paranoia, unnerving hallucinations, and even heart attacks. Several specific compounds were criminalized by an emergency DEA action and numerous state and local laws over the last two years. Still, products continued to be available containing compounds not explicitly criminalized, with marketers claiming legal status.

Commenters here and elsewhere have argued that this industry would go away if marijuana would simply be decriminalized in the US. Earlier this week, TIME Healthland writer Maia Szalavitz made a good argument for this (or at least FDA regulation of recreational drugs) in the context of Operation Log Jam.

Comprehensive action

I find two aspects of this initiative quite unique since I began covering the synthetic formerly-legal highs phenomenon.

First, Operation Log Jam aimed to address every level of the synthetic designer drug industry: manufacturers, wholesalers, and retailers. From the DEA press release:

As of today [26 July], more than 4.8 million packets of synthetic cannabinoids (ex. K2, Spice) and the products to produce nearly 13.6 million more, as well as 167,000 packets of synthetic cathinones (ex. bath salts), and the products to produce an additional 392,000 were seized.

In addition, $36 million was also seized in the raids.

Among the federal agencies involved was the US Postal Service since the internet-marketed products are sometimes shipped via regular mail. US Customs and Border Protection acted to target the flow of compounds synthesized non-domestically into the country. And, of course, the IRS was involved to, “trace the path of illicit drug proceeds by identifying the financial linkages among the various co-conspirators,” as indicated by Richard Weber, Chief, IRS Criminal Investigation.

Illegal analogs – guilt by assocation

The second most noteworthy aspect of the operation was that seizure and prosecution was supported by the analogue [sic] provision of the Controlled Substances Act.

While many of the designer drugs being marketed today that were seized as part of Operation Log Jam are not specifically prohibited in the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), the Controlled Substance Analogue Enforcement Act of 1986 (AEA) allows these drugs to be treated as controlled substances if they are proven to be chemically and/or pharmacologically similar to a Schedule I or Schedule II controlled substance.

Megan Grabenauer and colleagues developed a method for identifying designer drug analogs. Credit: RTI International

We wrote back in 2010 on the murky interpretation and infrequent application of the analog provision (“Who decides what’s an analog of a controlled substance”). In fact, a DEA spokesperson mistakenly commented last year that prosecution could be applied to the manufacture and sale of only the explicitly criminalized compounds were subject

Identifying analogs

One barrier to enforcement under this provision is that analytical testing laboratories must have the technology to identify compounds related to those explicitly classified as a controlled substance. One potential tool in this fight might be a mass spectrometry method (free PDF*) developed by Megan Grabenauer, Brian F. Thomas, and colleagues at RTI International (Disclosure: I worked at RTI from 2002 to 2008).

This C&EN article by Erika Gebel distills this method that borrows from metabolomics to employ mass defect filtering to identify unknown analogs of known compounds (Anal. Chem., DOI:10.1021/ac300509h).

As you’ll see from the map above, Operation Log Jam focused on clusters of cities. We here in North Carolina were not a target although we were surrounded by clusters in northern Georgia and Virginia. I’m personally surprised because designer drug use among the military, particularly at our Camp Lejeune, were among the first cases that led to state action here.

The majority of compounds in this family have mass defects between 0.13 and 0.23 mDa. A mass defect filter centered at 0.185 with a window of ±50 mDa would capture approximately 75% of the currently published structures. The small population of compounds with mass defects less than 0.13 mDa is primarily composed of structures halogenated with Cl, Br, or I. From Grabenauer et al. Anal. Chem., 2012, 84 (13), pp 5574–5581
DOI: 10.1021/ac300509h

Given the application of the analog provision, I’ll be very interested to see the outcomes of prosecution of these cases. At the very least, this operation should serve as notice to domestic and international synthetic drug manufacturers and sellers that the US is serious about shutting down the industry.

*Apologies that this link doesn’t yet take you to the free version – I need to have the ACS office activate access from the blog when folks are back on Monday. In the meantime, go to the Erika Gebel C&EN article and click on the hyperlink that reads, “a method that can screen for multiple designer drugs.” That should take you to a free version of the paper. Thank you for your patience.

Author: David Kroll

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1 Comment

  1. I am excited to hear that these devastating drugs are being noticed and taken off of the market. It is unfortunate that a market developed for things like ‘bath salts’. As far as I can tell there is not much positive that comes from their use. I was an active drug addict at an early age but used more ‘traditional’ drugs. I guess people are always finding creative ways to get high. I got clean and sober at 17 and I have been sober for the last 8 years. I got help from a sober living called New Life House. If you are looking for help then check out their site. http://www.newlifehouse.com