Inside The Barely Legal World Of Designer Drugs

Designer drugs are altered at the molecular level to mimic illegal drugs, while staying inside the law. NPR's Rachel Martin talks with author Mike Power about how these drugs are made and sold.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

With a bit of science, you can turn an illegal high into a legal one. This transformation comes at the molecular level. Some drugs can be altered to make them above board, making them essentially copies of banned drugs. So, how are these things legal? It's actually impossible to legislate against every kind of chemical configuration. So, add a molecule here, a molecule there, and voila, they are no longer banned. Mike Power has been investigating the barely legal drug industry for the digital publication Matter. And as part of his research, he commissioned his own designer drug. I asked him how he got started.

MIKE POWER: First of all, we decided why we wanted to do it, and we decided that we wanted to show how technology has made the drug laws essentially irrelevant. So, that was the why. Next, we decided what we wanted to do, which was to make a new drug. So, I wanted to make a drug that had the kind of cultural resonance. And I thought, well, what was the first drug that the Beatles first took, and it was drug called Preludin, which was a German diet pill. Its chemical name is phenmetrazine.

MARTIN: I'm sorry, you said it was a diet pill?

POWER: Yeah, a diet pill.

MARTIN: And what were the effects? What would happen...

POWER: It was a stimulant, apparently used, some people say, by Marilyn Monroe, JFK, Truman Capote - all the people who can no longer sue me for saying that. So, we decided on that drug and we thought, OK, let's make a legal version of that. Now, the way that you do that nowadays is that you contact a laboratory in China, you ask them to do it.

MARTIN: You say China like that's obvious. Is that home to most drug labs?

POWER: It is. The Chinese chemical industry is currently supplying grey market chemicals, which are used across the U.S. and across the U.K. and the EU. So, we contacted one and we asked them to make it. And it was quite funny actually. They asked me who I was and what I was doing. And so I said that I was a dog medicine manufacturer. I wanted to be as implausible as possible and quite vague in order that they would call me out on it. And it's because, you know, they knew what I was doing and I knew what I was doing. I was ordering a psychoactive cocaine-like substance from China to be imported into the U.K. So, yeah, we set up our bogus dog medicine company. We commissioned the laboratory to produce slightly different vision of phenmetrazine. We added a couple of different molecules to it, which according to some people that I spoke to would make it slightly less potent but still an active stimulant.

MARTIN: Is that a drug that is illegal in the U.K. and were the changes you were ordering going to amend them, make it legal?

POWER: Phenmetrazine in the U.K. is illegal. It's banned. However, the version that we made of it was completely legal.

MARTIN: And you just got this in the mail?

POWER: Yeah. Well, I set up a mailbox in town and I received it through the post. It was sent to me. And then I sent it off for testing. I sent it to the chemistry school in Cardiff. And it came through, yeah, the laboratory in China. And incidentally, just for a few hundred dollars, they made me several grams of a fairly potent stimulant, which, you know, could be sold in the U.K. on the Internet. We would have said that this wasn't for human consumption. You can sell anything if you say it's not for human consumption.

MARTIN: As part of your reporting, did you talk with any law enforcement officials? They're clearly aware that this is a trend. How do you go about combating it?

POWER: Well, in the U.K., we've had a fairly robust response for this. And they basically put the drugs into a kind of holding tank. They ban them for a year while the government actually kind of investigates the harms. And, yes, I've spoken to plenty of law enforcement officials and most of them are frankly bewildered. You know, they had enough on their plate trying to deal with normal drug abuse. To have Internet-enabled legal drug abuse, it draws up so many philosophical questions and legal and technical questions that they don't really know where to start, to be honest.

MARTIN: Mike Power. He's the author of "Drugs 2.0." Thanks so much for talking with us, Mike.

POWER: Many thanks.

MARTIN: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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