How 46 DEA Chemists in Virginia Try to Detect Synthetic Drugs


Day after day, inside a tightly guarded federal lab in suburban Washington, D.C., chemist Arthur Berrier probes packages of dangerous new synthetic drugs in search of secrets he can share with criminal investigators before the substances kill or seriously harm someone else, reports the Minneapolis Star Tribune. It’s a game of catch-up. As soon as he tips off law enforcement to the kinds of chemical compounds turning up in the drugs, another form of them emerges.

Drug makers can choose from an almost endless menu of chemicals to concoct, putting the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration at a disadvantage as it tries to help states crack down. “They’re keeping ahead of us,” Berrier said. Hardly anyone saw the scourge coming. Wild names and strange mixes of substances in the drugs are constantly changing, quickly rendering state or federal bans against them weak or moot. Enforcing new laws against synthetic drugs — sometimes sold as “bath salts” over the Internet by shadowy foreign companies or at local stores — is difficult. Berrier is one of 46 chemists working in this nondescript facility in a Virginia suburb. It’s one of nine DEA labs around the country, but this is the one where chemists spend all of their time using science to help the government take down drug kingpins and warlords.

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