Retailers need to take a lead role in combating the influx of designer drugs flooding the United States market, Federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) officials said at a Washington, D.C. roundtable yesterday.
In the past few years, designer drugs have been entering the U.S. at an unprecedented rate, Alan Santos, Associate Administrator for DEA's Office of Diversion Control, said at the roundtable, which was simultaneously broadcast in a call for the media.
He was joined by agents John Scherbenske, Bob Bell and scientists Dr. Terry Boos and Nelson Santos.
Since 2009, the DEA has identified 200 different chemical drug compounds, with 8 different structural classifications, and since 2012 the rate has rapidly increased, with 80 new compounds entering the United States.
“That is a new drug compound every 5 to 6 days,” said Santos, who noted that most of the drugs are “finished” compounds that have never made it to market—either because it didn't reach final FDA approval or the drug companies abandoned research and testing on the drug for other reasons.
Designer drugs are developed by altering the chemical properties of established drugs in labs, thus skirting the definition of “illegal drugs.”
Not only do they fall outside of DEA “schedules” defining illegal substances but as a result, but such drugs are hard to track.
The DEA has the power to schedule an emergency compound, so law enforcement can confiscate it as illegal. But often suppliers just create another drug with slightly different properties, so it is technically no longer illegal, according to the DEA.
Many of the drugs circulating come from China or Southeast Asia, and are packaged for youth and teens with names like “Bubbles,” “Gravel,” and “Spice”
This summer the United Nations released its annual World Drug Report, which warned of the rapidly growing international market in designer drugs. While the markets for drugs such as cocaine, cannabis and others has stabilized, the trade in designer drugs has skyrocketed, helped by the Internet— rendering regulation and enforcement virtually impossible, according to the report.
“While law enforcement lags behind, criminals have been quick to tap into this lucrative market,” the report warned.
Often, the drugs are sold in retail stores and marketed as “legal” to buyers—and it's s almost impossible to gauge the effects of the drugs on the users.
“You are really playing Russian roulette, because you don't know what you are taking,” said Santos.
Participants in the roundtable also received a grim first-hand account of the damage inflicted by designer drugs.
Karen Dobner, who lost her youngest son—a college student named Max— in a car accident after he took the designer drug “Spice, ” which he brought at a store called “Cigar Box ” in Westfield Fox Valley Mall in Aurora, Illinois.
Since her son's death, she started a foundation called “To The Maximus” to bring public attention to the emerging danger of synthetic drugs masquerading as “herbal” and “natural” highs. She also advocates for legislation against retail stores that sell these drugs.
In her blog, Dobner wrote, “Westfield Fox Valley Mall, allowed Ruby Mohsin (store owner) to sell poison-laced products, and even received a percentage of the profit from those drugs.”
Law enforcement authorities across the nation have taken steps to curb retailers from selling designer drugs. In 2013, New York State permanently banned the sale of any misbranded, mislabeled or unapproved intoxicants or drugs. In 2011 Minnesota also banned these sales in retail stores.
In San Bernardino County, the sheriff's department sent letters to local smoke shops and liquor stores warning them that selling synthetic drugs, such as “bath salts” and “spice,” will not be permitted.
“Retailers need to be involved in this education and be responsible as well,” said DEA spokesman Rusty Payne.
Officials at the DEA said they have taken steps to work with retailers around the country and inform them of the dangers of designer drugs. They sent letters to the top 100 U.S. retailers asking them to take steps to remove such products from their shelves. This August retailers were invited retailers to a meeting at DEA Headquarters in Washington, D.C. to discuss the dangers of selling these drugs.
But these efforts have not yet had much success is stopping the tide.
“We can't arrest enforce or legislative our ways out of these issues,” said Payne. “We need help.”
Cara Tabachnick is managing editor of The Crime Report. She welcomes comments from readers.