GRAND FORKS - When Andrew Spofford was arrested by Grand Forks police last month, he told them he is a "hobby chemist."
Police say the end result of his chemistry was a synthetic drug that appears to have killed two teens in the area and sent several others to the hospital with overdoses.
It’s a growing problem for law enforcement as investigators struggle to identify a myriad of new synthetic drugs. Knowledge of basic chemistry has allowed drug “cooks” to make small molecular changes to existing drugs, creating new substances and keeping the cooks a step ahead of investigators.
“We are seeing a continued influx of changing of chemical compounds that make up various drugs or substances being ingested throughout the state,” said Drew Evans, senior special agent with the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. “They are changing at the molecular level into something it wasn’t before, but may have similar effects or different effects.”
His agency investigated the East Grand Forks, Minn., death of Elijah Stai, 17, of Park Rapids, on June 15. The agency’s labs concluded Stai had ingested a psychedelic substance called 25iNBOMe, which law enforcement officials allege Spofford cooked. The same batch of drugs allegedly killed Christian Bjerk, 18, of Grand Forks on June 10 or 11.
The chemistry recipes Spofford may have used to alter the original drug shipped from Europe could have easily been found on the Internet, said David Pierce, chairman of the UND chemistry department.
“Using organic chemicals to make up drugs is the most variable type of chemistry out there,” he said. “They are performing standard chemistry transformations but are doing it in an uncontrolled environment.”
Spofford told investigators he cooked the drug in his home, and had sold a “sheet” that included 60 to 100 hits for $500 at one point.
Pierce said that by ordering the drug from Europe, Spofford would have been able to bypass many steps he may not have had the knowledge or tools to make. The small chemical alterations Spofford would have had to do could have been complicated, taking anywhere from 20 minutes to three days.
Pierce compared the process to baking in the kitchen. The chemical reactions are dependent on exact quantities. The cook has to have exact measurements and use the exact amount of heat. He also has to know how long the chemicals have to react over a certain period of time and at a particular temperature.
“It’s not easy to do all chemical transformations; many are difficult to do,” Pierce said. “If they are cooking this stuff they can probably do general reactions they might be able to learn from the Internet, but whether they can do that in any kind of a way to be safe, all bets are off.”
Evans said these small changes make it difficult for the crime labs to distinguish the chemical makeup. The labs base their findings off of previously defined standards. The constant changes made by drug cooks force investigators to start over to determine what standard to work off of.
“It’s unchartered territory and complicated for scientists to do this that do it for a living,” Evans said.
Efforts to regulate or ban the synthetic substances have been slowed as a result of the chemical changes.
Recent cases have broadly classified synthetic drugs as analogs, which allow law enforcement to charge those that use unidentified drugs that are similar in makeup to illegal drugs.
The fight against synthetic drugs did see some help Tuesday with the passage of the Food and Drug Administration Safety and Innovation Act, which included a ban on chemicals commonly found in so-called “bath salts” and synthetic marijuana.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., who championed the ban, said a drastic increase in synthetic drugs alone in the past year prompted the need for the amendments.
In 2011, 13,000 calls were made to poison control centers about synthetic drugs, up from 3,200 calls in 2010, Klobuchar said.
“I’m glad we got it passed, I think people do not understand how dangerous these drugs are,” she said. “It’s very important these drugs be listed as illegal federally because it sends a clear message nationally.”
Congress began addressing the synthetic drug issue last year after the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Synthetic Drug Control Act in December. The Senate has not voted on it because some senators fear its scope is too broad.
Substances such as psilocybin, the active ingredient in psychedelic mushrooms, and THC, the substance that gives marijuana users a high, are already designated Schedule I controlled substances. This means the government has decided they have a high potential for abuse and are not safe to use for medical treatment.
The Synthetic Drug Control Act would designate as Schedule I substances that mimic existing Schedule I substances.
North Dakota and Minnesota, along with 36 other states, have already outlawed mimics such as synthetic cannabinoids, which mimic marijuana, and bath salts, which mimic real cathinone, a substance with similar effects to ecstasy and cocaine.
But the legal framework is still in the early stages.
As a result of the synthetic drug presence in Minnesota, courts have become backlogged as cases are sent to the BCA, said Anthony Torres, a Minneapolis-based defense attorney and UND alumnus. It can take anywhere from six months to one year before a person is charged.
Evans, the BCA agent, said the agency is working to better define the drugs to aid in legislation to completely ban them in Minnesota, but the legislation may take a year or longer.
“We can expose a lot of people in that time to a risk if they ingest them, thinking they are legal where they are being used,” Evans said.
Torres, who expects legislation to come in the next five years, doesn’t consider it a central issue because synthetic drugs are relatively new to the area.
“There was a time when meth was almost unknown to people, so as these issues come up legislatures have to move on them,” said Torres. “It’s one of those where it’s in a primitive stage in terms of legislation.”
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