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.
These products were sold widely on the internet, headshop suppliers, 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.
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.
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
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.
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.