In Quest for 'Legal High,' Chemists Outfox Law


ANTWERP, Belgium—When the housing market crashed in 2008, David Llewellyn's construction business went with it. Casting around for a new gig, he decided to commercialize something he'd long done as a hobby: making drugs.

But the 49-year-old Scotsman didn't go into the illegal drug trade. Instead, he entered the so-called "legal high" business—a burgeoning industry producing new psychoactive powders and pills that are marketed as "not for human consumption."

Mr. Llewellyn, a self-described former crack addict, started out making mephedrone, a stimulant also known as Meow Meow that was already popular with the European clubbing set. Once governments began banning it earlier this year, Mr. Llewellyn and a chemistry-savvy partner started selling something they dubbed Nopaine—a stimulant they concocted by tweaking the molecular structure of the attention-deficit drug Ritalin.

Nopaine "is every bit as good as cocaine," says Mr. Llewellyn, who has lived in Antwerp on and off since the late 1980s. "You can freebase it. You can snort it like crack." Still, he emphasized, "Everything we sell is legal. I don't want to go to jail for 14 years."

Mr. Llewellyn is part of a wave of laboratory-adept European entrepreneurs who see gold in the gray zone between legal and illegal drugs. They pose a stiff challenge for European law-enforcement, which is struggling to keep up with all the new concoctions. Last year, 24 new "psychoactive substances" were identified in Europe, almost double the number reported in 2008, according to the Lisbon-based European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, or EMCDDA.

The problem is also touching U.S. shores. A new synthetic drug similar to marijuana is increasingly popular, for instance. Some states have started banning it. But many of the other substances and stimulants vexing Europe are less of an issue in the U.S., according to a spokeswoman for the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Designer Fashions
Among the 'legal highs' that have appeared in recent years:

Mephedrone. Also known as Meow Meow, Drone and M-Cat. Similar to amphetamines such as speed. It has been responsible for at least three deaths in Europe. Recently banned in most European countries.

Naphyrone. Also known as NRG-1. Similar to amphetamines. Banned this year in the U.K.

MDAI. Similar to MDMA, or ecstasy. Still legal in many countries.

Spice. A synthetic cannabinoid that is similar to cannabis. Sprayed on herbal leaves and smoked. Recently banned in most of Europe and many U.S. states.

BZP. Belongs to a class of drugs called piperazines, which mimic the effects of MDMA, or ecstasy. Piperazines are used in industry to make plastics, resins, pesticides and brake fluid. BZP was once investigated as a potential antidepressant, but the work was abandoned when it was found that the drug had stimulant properties similar to amphetamines. Now banned in many countries.

SOURCES: European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction; U.K. Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs.

"The legal high phenomenon is very much European," says Roumen Sedefov, head of supply reduction and new trends at the EMCDDA. New substances tend to hit Europe before the U.S. and other markets, he says, in part because European consumers are more accustomed to buying drugs online. Strong trade links between Europe and southeast Asia, where many of the drugs are made, also play a role, he said. Web sites, no matter where they are based, often market new drugs to Europeans, pricing their wares in euros or British pounds, he said.

European authorities blame mephedrone for the death of three young people in the U.K. and Sweden in recent years. They say it may have contributed to more than 30 additional deaths in the U.K.

The products Mr. Llewellyn sells aren't banned substances. Because he and others market their wares as "not for human consumption," his business is technically legal. Still, authorities don't like what he's doing. Drug-enforcement officials are scrambling to spot and ban harmful new drugs faster. Many have banned substances like mephedrone and naphyrone in recent months, giving them the "class B" status assigned to amphetamines and other drugs.

But with their resources stretched, police say the new drugs aren't as high a priority as fighting "class A" drugs, such as heroin and cocaine.

As he scurries to stay ahead of the law, authorities have put speed bumps, not roadblocks, in his path. Mr. Llewellyn says Belgian customs officials recently raided one of his storehouses and seized his chemicals, threatening to use environmental laws to shut him down. And he says he may have to move one of his production labs from the Netherlands because authorities there are planning to outlaw the use of certain lab equipment without a professional license.

A spokesman for Dutch police said he didn't have any information on Mr. Llewellyn. Belgian customs didn't respond to requests for comment.

Other than that, however, Mr. Llewellyn's business is cruising along largely unimpeded. He and eight employees make drugs in a pair of "underground" labs—one in Holland and a new, $190,000 lab in Scotland. He hawks his wares online at, taking payment by bank transfer. He advertises some of the drugs by their formal chemical name and some by nicknames like Euforia or XT.

Mr. Llewellyn says he expects governments to catch wind of Nopaine soon and ban it. Anticipating the move, he says he's got dozens of other products ready to go, including a drug similar to the horse anesthetic Ketamine and something else he claims to be "the closest thing to Ecstasy that ever existed." By the time officials crack down, he says, "we are going to bring out something else."

His products sell for about €20 ($28) a gram, or €4,000 to €5,800 ($5,500 to $8,000) a kilo. By contrast, a gram of cocaine costs roughly €50 to €70 ($69 to $97) in Europe, according to the EMCDDA.

Many users buy small amounts of the legal stuff online, while large wholesalers buy in bulk and sell it on to dealers. They, in turn, peddle the drugs in nightclubs. Mr. Llewellyn travels frequently to promote his latest products to the biggest wholesalers, whom he declines to name.

He and his chief chemist get ideas for new drugs by scanning scientific literature. They pay particularly close attention to new papers published by scholars known for researching mind-altering, psychoactive substances.

David Nichols, a pharmacologist at Purdue University, has been especially valuable, Mr. Llewellyn says. Through his work studying brain receptors, Dr. Nichols has developed a range of psychoactive substances. His papers give a full description of the drugs he's using, including their chemical makeup. This provides Llewellyn and others with a roadmap for making the drugs.

Dr. Nichols says he's well aware of this fan club. "The drugs we make often end up on the black market, and it's very troubling to me," he says. Particularly worrying is that the drugs are rarely tested in humans before hitting the street. Random people sometimes write to him to ask for help in making certain chemicals, he says. He doesn't reply out of caution.

"When people use this stuff chronically, on a weekly basis—suppose it produces liver cancer?" he asks. Also of concern are effects on the kidneys and bone marrow. Most of the designer drugs haven't been tested in humans at all, let alone in large clinical trials. Dr. Nichols says he himself only ever carried out animal tests of the compounds that others are now copying and selling.

Mr. Llewellyn and his colleagues make many of their products with the help of a rotary evaporator—a piece of lab equipment resembling a food processor that heats and evaporates liquid chemicals, turning them into powders. To outfit his new lab in Scotland, he ordered custom-made, stainless-steel equipment from a welder. He says he didn't purchase the equipment from a commercial supplier because it would have asked questions about why he was buying gear normally used for industrial chemical production.

Recent deaths attributed to legal highs like Meow Meow have drawn attention to the drugs in some parts of Europe. Mr. Llewellyn says he stopped selling mephedrone when countries started banning it, although he still scoffs at the idea that the drug is dangerous.

To try to prove his point before European countries began banning mephedrone, he snorted half a gram of it on one of Belgium's evening news programs. "I took a gram, cut it in half, put it in a line and I sniffed it," he says. "They couldn't actually show the sniff but they showed everything else." Afterwards, he says he felt pleasantly buzzed.

Others have had darker experiences with the drug. One teenager in central England started using mephedrone last year when he was offered it at a party. His mother says he was soon addicted, and became aggressive and wired—staying up for days at a time before crashing and refusing to get out of bed. He lost his part-time job and got kicked out of school. After one heated confrontation over Christmas, she kicked him out of the house.

"It had a massive, big effect on the family. I had a nervous breakdown," the mother says.

Her son would buy the powder online, or get it from friends, she says. "It was like he couldn't live without it." After about a year, he managed to quit the drug, she says. Her son declined to comment.

Many U.K. nightclubs search patrons upon entry and place any suspicious substances in so-called "amnesty bins" that are regularly emptied by police. When they see anything potentially new, police often forward the substance to John Ramsey, a toxicologist at St. George's, University of London, who keeps a vast database of new drugs.

Dr. Ramsey and his team specialize in identifying new substances, and have seen a "dramatic increase" in recent years, he says.

"Probably five years ago, the appearance of a new drug was notable—we'd all get together and talk about it—whereas last month, we found six," Dr. Ramsey says. A few were similar in structure to mephedrone and naphyrone, while another was identified as desoxypipradrol. A stimulant, it is similar to pipradrol, a drug once prescribed for weight loss and other uses that fell out of favor because of its potential for abuse.

Police also hear about new drugs from emergency rooms. This summer, a hospital in northwestern England phoned local police after six people in a single week reported taking something called "Ivory Wave." They came to the hospital "paranoid and extremely agitated," with extremely fast heart rates, says cardiologist Kate Willmer, who helped treat them. It took four members of staff to restrain one young woman, who was eventually sent to a mental institution, where she is still being treated, Dr. Willmer said.

James Brokenshire, minister for crime prevention at the U.K.'s Home Office, says police are encouraging hospitals to keep them informed about new drug threats. Law-enforcement agencies also monitor Web sites for signs of new drugs, and are stepping up visits to head shops to keep track of what's being sold. Most sellers of legal highs advertise them as "plant food," "pond cleaner" or "bath salts" not meant for human consumption, as a legal figleaf to protect them from any liability.

Narcotics experts say many of the novel drugs are manufactured in China, where they say lax regulation makes it easy for companies to produce and export a cornucopia of chemicals. Les Iversen, chairman of the U.K.'s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, which advises the government on new substances, says customs officials at Heathrow Airport recently seized a large shipment of white powder from China that was labelled "glucose" but contained mephedrone.

China also supplies raw ingredients to manufacturers located elsewhere. Mr. Llewellyn says he buys his raw ingredients online from Chinese suppliers, who charge rock-bottom prices and ask few questions about his business. The powders and liquids arrive by plane in 1-kilogram sacks and 25-liter drums and go to a warehouse in Glasgow before being shipped to his labs.

Chinese officials say the country is taking steps to control the flow of new drugs. On September 1, China began regulating mephedrone as a "category I psychotropic substance," which means anyone importing or exporting it needs a special license. In a written statement, China's State Food and Drug Administration said it has "strengthened monitoring of the situation in the country," and is ready to work with other countries to "exchange information, share resources and jointly respond to new emerging problems of drug abuse."

Mr. Llewellyn, meanwhile, is unfazed. He boasts that his safety testing method is foolproof: He and several colleagues sit in a room and take a new product "almost to overdose levels" to see what happens. "We'll all sit with a pen and a pad, some good music on, and one person who's straight who's watching everything," he says.

Kersten Zhang contributed to this article.

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