In a filthy Shanghai laboratory, chemists make batches of mephedrone - and a new incarnation of the 'plant food' linked to the deaths of British teenagers. Never heard of the drugs Eric-1 and Eric-2? That's the point. By Mike Power in London and Simon Parry in China
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Young, rich and brimming with energy, Eric embodies the entrepreneurial spirit of modern China. He sits at his desk beneath a cabinet of spirits and cigars that he dispenses liberally to his overseas clients while secretaries totter in and out carrying samples and price lists.
Eric, 35, wears designer clothes, drives a Buick SUV and works such long hours his wife moans that he treats the luxury villa where they live like a hotel. But for all his infectious charm as he chats and jokes at his office in an up-market Shanghai apartment block, there is a sinister side to the business that has made this chemistry graduate conspicuously wealthy.
The booming and rapidly expanding company he heads produces designer drugs that supply tens of thousands of British youngsters with a legal - and potentially lethal - high. These new drugs could take over as a legal replacement for mephedrone, the amphetamine-like drug some users have called 'meow meow', which was banned by the Government ten days ago after legislation was rushed through. This followed media reports that cited its use by some users before their deaths. One of those was Lois Waters, 24, of North Yorkshire who died last month having taken mephedrone several days before.
With a laboratory near the city's international airport (whose neighbours include offices of Glaxo Smith Kline, Novartis and Astra Zeneca) and a factory with 65 workers three hours from Shanghai, Eric claims his company manufactures and ships hundreds of kilograms of drugs to Britain every week.
Despite the ban on mephedrone and other related-compounds, Eric and many other Chinese businessmen like him are ahead of the game. They beat customs controls using know-how and corruption and are creating and preparing new drugs that will deliberately dodge our classifications and continue to offer profitable, legal kicks in the UK.
Posing as customers, we were shown around his laboratory and witnessed a sophisticated and ruthless export industry that is indifferent to the harm and addiction its products cause. It is driven instead by modern China's guiding light: money.
Eric makes it clear that he views the death of Lois Waters and two British youngsters who had allegedly taken mephedrone as being a business inconvenience rather than a moral dilemma.
'They died in the UK,' he tells us in a rare display of earnestness. 'As a result UK customs have recently been very strict and lots of packages from China and India are stopped and seized. It is in the media and on the TV and a lot of our customers are worried. But we assure them there is no risk for them.'
He then reveals how his company has already been avoiding customs checks in the UK by sending packages into Britain via 'soft' third countries in the EU.
'We have agents in Europe so we can send to Ireland, Austria, Spain and Italy. Then the package will be re-sent to the UK from those countries. If the package comes from outside Europe there might be trouble. Within Europe, the UK customs normally will not check.'
Even if the packages were stopped, he promises us, the orders would be honoured.
'I can't think of any way we can get ahead of the game, there are just too many chemical possibilities. There's always going to be something we haven't thought of and legislated for'
'If it is stopped we always refund or reship. That is why we have so many customers in the UK. There is no risk for them.'
Eric's company sends its drugs to Britain by express courier. At the entrance to his office, barrels of MDPV - a potent and addictive stimulant that was banned along with mephedrone on April 16 - are piled up alongside dozens of one-kilo packages sitting ready to be taken to the airport.
Posing as large, London-based wholesalers of legal highs, we had insisted on a visit to the lab before making our order - for 10kg of MDPV every month for a year. Eric says our order is almost laughably small: 'It amounts to 120kg a year. I have that much in my office now. Every month we produce two tons.'
However, our order still amounts to 200,000 doses monthly, and 2.4 million doses annually.
Even with shipment via a European country, packages are delivered in three to four days from the time payment hits his account, he says, adding with a knowing grin: 'Some packages we send directly to the UK. We have our own methods.'
The boom in demand for legal highs in the UK has generated a huge new revenue stream for Eric's company.
'It has all happened in the past two years and the demand from the UK and other countries just keeps increasing,' he says.
Set up seven years ago, his lab was already doing brisk international business turning out five or six new generic drugs a year for worldwide sales. These ranged from anti-retroviral drugs for HIV sufferers and heart-disease drugs to fake Viagra.
Eric said there was no problem in continuing to send the drug to the UK, promising to fulfil our 12-month order. What's more, Eric told us that he is developing a new drug to ship to the UK after this month's ban.
At his company's laboratory, the size of a small flat, a team of young scientists in white coats and face masks work on new formulas. Dipping his nose into a sample bag of white powder, Eric says: 'I can't tell you the name of this. It is going to be very popular and your buyers will be very interested in this.'
Scooping out a pinch between his fingers he says: 'We've been working on this for some time. It is almost perfect and ready to ship. The purity is 99.9 per cent. If you look at it, you can see it is snow white. That shows how pure it is.'
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Inside the laboratory, with huge bell jars at one end, a small team of scientists appear to be working on a dozen different chemical processes at once. When we point out the extraordinary variety of colours in one of the bell jars and compare it to an oil painting, Eric laughs.
'You must be artists,' he says. 'When you look at that jar, you see colours. When I look at it, I see only orders and money.'
Driving us from his laboratory back to his downtown office in the hope of sealing another overseas order, Eric was in a hurry to move on to the next deal.
'I have no time for holidays. I am working all the time,' he says.
Eric, though, like all the most successful drug dealers, chooses not to get high on his own supply. His only vice is cans of Red Bull.
'I have a lot of business on my hands. I need all the energy I can get,' he says.
For the past year, the drug market in the UK has been teetering on the edge of complete anarchy. Drug laws look impotent in the face of the ingenuity and resourcefulness of dealers, users and chemists. We have ended up in a situation where anyone of any age can buy limitless amounts of powerful drugs on the high street or on the internet, and - feasibly - consume it in front of a police officer with little chance of prosecution.
Chinese scientists such as Eric are identifying illegal compounds that have a psychoactive effect and modifying them slightly on a molecular level so they still get users high - but are legal. Over the course of our investigation, Eric has offered dozens more chemicals, a garbled narcotic alphabet soup of untried and untested drugs, whose chemical structures, experts tell us, makes them likely to be addictive and harmful.
'Now people have discovered mephedrone, they'll look for others. It will be interesting to see if the new control kills the market or if goes underground. That's the dilemma for legislators: is controlling it the best way?'
The recent ban on mephedrone followed a wave of public outrage after reports claiming that 25 young people had died after using it. Coroners' reports have shown that most of these users had more than one drug in their bloodstream - in the case of Louis Wainwright, 18, and his friend Nicholas Smith, 19, who died in Scunthorpe in March, both men were taken the drug with heroin substitute methadone and alcohol, a fatal mix experienced methadone users avoid.
It is undeniable, though, that mephedrone is addictive, dangerous, and the market around it is far from benign. Politicians and scientists have distinctly opposed views about what is to be done. Professor David Nutt was sacked as chairman of the independent Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) in October for his views in favour of a more relaxed legal stance to reflect what he claims are over-stated dangers. Other members with similar views have also resigned. Nutt recently caused more controversy saying it would be better to sell controlled doses of mephedrone at nightclubs and give safety guidance than ban it.
While the Government and their advisers have been at loggerheads and seem unable to come up with a clear policy, Chinese labs have filled the policy vacuum.
It seems as if the legal drugs scene burst out of nowhere, but experts have been expecting it for years. Dr John Ramsey, a toxicologist at St George's Medical School, University of London, says most of the new legal highs he sees are made in China.
'It's not difficult to look at the pharmaceutical literature, find things that are controlled, then devise a minor chemical modification to bring them outside control,' he says. 'Then you can contact a Chinese laboratory and they'll happily custom-synthesise it for you.'
Ramsey believes that current models of control are inadequate and out of date: 'All we're doing is propelling people through a series of new chemicals, none of which have been toxicity tested.'
The Labour MP for Bolton South East, Brian Iddon, who has worked in the pharmaceutical industry for many years, agrees.
'There's an unlimited supply of synthetic drugs,' he says. 'As a chemist I know that I can move one functional group around a molecule and produce an analogue that will have a similar physiological effect. The trouble is, by banning new drugs, there's this procession of new ones that people will turn to.'
Ramsey says the chemical landscape has changed irrevocably in the last few years.
'I can't think of any way we can get ahead of the game, there are just too many chemical possibilities. There's always going to be something we haven't thought of and legislated for.'
Shadow Minister for Crime Reduction James Brokenshire disagrees, and says the Government needs a more integrated approach.
'When new psychoactive drugs emerge onto the market - which we should monitor via an early-warning system - we need to be able to put them into a temporary classification, during which time there would be restrictions on import and sale,' he says.
'This would allow the ACMD to do its work so we can come up with a longer-term classification. But in that initial period, you'd actually be dealing with the harms they pose.'
Brokenshire believes we may soon need more broad, catch-all legislation as they have in the U.S. and Australia. 'We need to look at ways in which analogues can be captured so that if there is an existing illegal drug and someone merely creates an analogue of it, there should be a way of legislating against it.'
Keith Vaz, chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee that monitors domestic policy, says the answer is even simpler: do away with complex and lengthy scientific consultation, and change the law fast.
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'As the Home Secretary has said on a number of occasions, the ACMD are the experts but politicians have to make the decisions. We need to say to the ACMD, "You have 28 days to ban this." It's not rocket science. We also need to gather drugs intelligence in the same way we gather anti-terrorism information.'
MP Brian Iddon, meanwhile, argues a more radical position, one few politicians are keen to hear, much less advocate.
'Since the war on drugs started, usage has escalated,' he says. 'Legal enforcements do not work. Supply-side control does not work. We have to reduce or minimise demand. You'll never stop it. We have to get the health risks of drugs across to young people early in secondary schools.'
The last time new drugs sparked such a fevered response was in the late Eighties, when ecstasy exploded onto the British music scene. However, TV and press coverage of outdoor raves unintentionally brought the new drug into the orbit, if not the pockets, of millions of young British people throughout the following decades. A similar scenario has now played out with mephedrone and other legal highs.
To understand the chaos we are in today in the UK, you need to trace the decades-old links between an octogenarian chemist in California, makeshift essential oil distilleries in the Cardamom Mountains of Cambodia, laboratories such as Eric's in Shanghai, nightclubs in the UK and hippy shops in towns like Scunthorpe.
What ties them all together is the internet.
Alexander Shulgin, now aged 84, has been called the godfather of ecstasy - a title he, as a scientist, hates. In the late Fifties, in common with other intellectuals, Shulgin had tried mescaline - a natural and at that time legal hallucinogen produced by cacti. He was so profoundly affected by the experience that he gave over the rest of his life to radical psychedelic research. He considered, correctly, that if he tinkered with the molecules of the drug (which belongs to a chemical class known as phenethylamines), the new compounds would have novel and interesting effects. He was right, and he produced hundreds of new drugs.
On September 12, 1976, Shulgin synthesised MDMA, the principal component of ecstasy. He introduced it to his friends, many of whom worked in psychotherapy. They found the drug's dismantling of social barriers and personal inhibitions useful in their work.
Shulgin was working with a U.S. government-approved licence, which saw him producing samples of outlawed drugs to help the Drug Enforcement Agency; police needed verified samples of drugs against which to compare their seizures.
His production techniques used easy-to-acquire chemicals. For ecstasy, this involved safrole, an essential oil produced by distilling the root bark of certain trees. He published his work in a book PiHKAL: A Chemical Love Story, which was bought by hundreds of underground chemists. Illegal production got underway. In 1994, the DEA raided Shulgin's laboratory - allegedly finding problems with his record keeping - but by then his research was already in the public domain.
The rapid commercial growth of the internet in the mid-Nineties saw the growth of communities of self-styled 'psychonauts' - drug-users who hunted online for firms selling legal drugs. Hundreds of powerful drugs were available until 2004, when a U.S.-UK anti-drugs operation, Operation Ismene, clamped down on their sale. Police raided firms in the U.S. and homes in Britain and arrested 22 people for buying a Shulgin-designed hallucinogen, 2CI (illegal in the UK).
Over the past few years, scientists in China have been doing much the same thing as Shulgin - altering the molecules of one drug to produce another with similar properties. Nothing, not even legal barriers, can stop their innovation now a market has developed.
The reason is profit. The locus of the legal drug market has shifted to China, where production is cheap. Now Beijing has part-liberalised its economy, it is trading more freely with the West. However, it lacks the infrastructure to deal with corrupt customs officials and local government. A flood of new or seldom-seen drugs is appearing with greater frequency than ever before. Mephedrone has been joined by buphedrone, flephedrone, ethylone and butylone. And those are just the ones scientists have identified.
There's a reason these drugs took over from ecstasy. In July 2008, in Pursat, 170km west of Cambodian capital Phnom Penh, UN anti-drug officers destroyed 30 tons of safrole-rich oil, which was to be used by clandestine chemists in Holland to make ecstasy, using Shulgin's recipe.
The oil, confiscated over the preceding weeks and months, had been distilled from the roots of the mreah prew phnom tree in jungle labs that produced an average of 60 litres a day. If it had got to Holland, it could have been synthesised into 245 million doses of ecstasy. Instead, it was burnt. The impact was profound and lasting and inadvertently caused the mephedrone phenomenon.
Throughout 2007 and 2008, health and drug professionals reported the clubbing scene had been taken over by a new class of drugs, piperazines. These are used in the production of a number of medicines, as worming treatment for animals, or compounds designed to induce migraines in medical research. Their effects are powerful, but often unpleasant. They are legal, cheap and made an ideal replacement for ecstasy dealers following the Cambodian clampdown.
About then, at the start of 2007, the internet was a-buzz over the release of two new legal products: Neo Doves and Sub Coca. Normally, legal highs were a ripo, a hotch-potch of herbs, piperazines and caffeine. But these new products, sold by a firm in Israel named BioRepublik, were different, and the firm refused to reveal what was in them. Sold in capsules, users were unanimous that they worked, and said they felt like a cross between ecstasy and cocaine.
Their contents may have been a mystery - but it was a mystery worth solving. They were selling in their hundreds of thousands. It was no surprise they were selling so well - they were addictive, and scarily so; users reported going on crazed binges for days. Soon, information emerged online that BioRepublik's products contained a new drug - the most popular of which was 4-methylmethcathinone, or mephedrone, a previously unseen chemical on the global drug market.
There was serious money to be made and a huge human experiment was under way, with young drug users all over the world turning themselves into lab rats. Almost immediately, unscrupulous entrepreneurs were Googling for chemistry labs in China and getting them to synthesise the drug.
'The designers of mephedrone stumbled across something with the pharmacology somewhere between cocaine and ecstasy that was cheap, legal and freely available,' says Dr Ramsey. 'And this coincided with a drop in the quality and availability of other drugs.'
In a matter of weeks it had descended into a mad free-for-all, a chemical gold-rush with dozens of new players popping up daily. The new drugs could be bought for around £1,000 to £2,500 per kilo and sold for £10,000 - legally. Internet forums dedicated to selling and discussing mephedrone and other new legal highs came online. Websites with garish branding skirted British trade, food and medicine laws by selling the new drugs as 'plant food' with rave-style graphics and absurd instructions: 'Water your plants no more than once a week. Will make your garden bloom!'
Then things got even more bizarre, thanks again to the internet. The Google Adsense programme, which automatically generates advertisements from keywords paid for by businesses, started adding links to online mephedrone shops at the end of online newspaper articles calling for it to be banned. Mephedrone and other legal highs received a vast, free boost with adverts paid for by the very organisations that wanted to ban them. Google was not checking what its advertisers sold before they ran the ads, and newspapers had no control of the ads that Google was generating on its web pages. The search giant took down dozens of legal high ads the day I alerted them to their presence.
Facebook groups and blogs dedicated to the drug sprang up, and pubs and clubs all over Britain began to reek of mephedrone, which often has a fishy, synthetic smell, and which is sweated out as users dance and rant emptily.
At the height of the madness came the first reports of a death. Gabrielle Price, a 14-year-old girl from Hastings, died in November 2009 after a night when she had taken the drug. The newspapers reported the tragedy but, again, the automatically generated Google ads beneath the reports showed people exactly where they could buy this new, legal drug. It had gone viral.
In March, the ACMD told the Home Secretary in its recommendations on banning mephedrone that Google's 'insights for search' tool, which analyses user searches, demonstrates how every death attributed to the drug in newspaper reports coincided with a massive spike in searches for the term 'buy mephedrone online'.
By the time the cause of Gabrielle's death was known - she died of pulmonary problems and a bronchial infection both unrelated to the mephedrone, ketamine and alcohol she'd taken - the adverts for online drug shops had vanished.
And the story doesn't end here. Ramsey says the designer-drug genie may be out of the bottle.
'Now people have discovered mephedrone, they'll look for others. It will be interesting to see if the new control kills the market or if goes underground. That's the dilemma for legislators: is controlling it the best way?'
We call Eric to cancel our order, telling him as honest businessmen, we only want to sell legal drugs, and hoping he can reveal what was in the new compound he showed us in the lab. He mails back, swatting away such trivial concerns as British drug law. He sends a link to the UK Government's Office of Public Sector Information, which details how the Misuse of Drugs Act is to be amended to reflect the ban on mephedrone.
No worries, though. He tells us he's ready to do business.
'We can supply new legal stuff for the UK. It falls outside all laws currently regarding research chemicals. This is a snow-white powder. The purity is above 99.8 per cent. Sorry, we cannot disclose the ingredient now. This is our technical know-how. If others know it, they will copy our products, and this product will be ruined very quickly like mephedrone. So we should keep secrecy at this moment. It can't possibly be banned yet because it was only invented a few months ago.'
Already reports have surfaced online about horrific overdoses on these new drugs, with people in their twenties being hospitalised with heart trouble and panic attacks. And the name of the new highs?
Eric says we can call them whatever we like. Some vendors are calling it Energy-1, others NRG-1. None of them know what it is - and Eric tells us he has lied to some vendors to spread confusion, saying the new drug is naphyrone. Without expensive testing, we can't know for sure what they are. Their real name is his secret.
Modestly, he's called them Eric-1 and Eric-2.
By MIKE POWER in LONDON and SIMON PARRY in CHINA
April 24, 2010
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The Chinese laboratories where scientists are already at work on the new 'meow meow'