BANGOR, Maine — Drug dealers buying synthetic bath salts don’t go to a darkened alley to pick up their package of contraband illegally smuggled into the country, they just use a few mouse clicks and have it delivered.
Recent large seizures in Hermon on Jan. 18 and at a Hampden mail sorting facility in early February have spotlighted how bath salts are slipping into Maine by way of the Internet and foreign countries where production and possession of synthetic cathinones remains legal.
“It would be nice if you couldn’t go online and order [bath salts], but you can,” Darrell Crandall, commander of the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency in central and northern Maine, said of the drugs, which have been linked to at least five deaths in Bangor in less than two years.
Foreign drug makers, he said, advertise the drug as a “legal high” to lure buyers.
Also luring buyers in Maine and other states is the heavy markup the drugs command once inside the country. The 24.5 pounds of dangerous synthetics that arrived in the Bangor area from China over the last two months are selling on the streets for $150 a gram bag, Crandall said, a stark increase from the reported street price of $35 two years ago. The recent seizures have a street value of more than $1.7 million.
A similar bath salts seizure in Alaska, of nearly 3.5 pounds, led to December charges against seven men for importing bath salts from China that killed one of the gang when he overdosed, a U.S. Attorney’s Office in Alaska press release about the indictments states.
The Alaska gang members, all between the ages of 18 and 23, paid between $4 and $6 per gram and purchased 1.7 kilograms of the drug — 3.5 pounds — for $6,176, the indictment states. In Maine, that amount has a street value of more than $562,000.
China — identified as a major source of the drug — lacks laws against manufacturing new psychoactive substances such as bath salts. Without any regulations, China and other countries making the chemicals are “out of our control,” said Mike Wardrop, DEA resident agent for Maine.
The U.S. is left standing at the border trying to prevent the drugs from entering, he said.
This job is shared by multiple agencies that work in concert to identify and intercept illegal shipments into the country. Among the agencies involved are local police, MDEA, DEA, Homeland Security Investigators, the Internal Revenue Service, U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, the FBI, the Food and Drug Administration, the United States Postal Service and U.S. Postal Inspectors.
In the seven months since bath salts were outlawed in the U.S., however, these agencies say the online ordering and illegal shipping of these drugs remains a problem, and may be increasing.
“I would consider it, just by the number of incidents we’re seeing here locally — it’s a much bigger problem,” said Michael Lana, Homeland Security Investigations resident agent in charge in Bangor.
Ross Feinstein, spokesman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, told the Bangor Daily News the importation of illegal designer drugs — such as bath salts — is not only a problem in Maine.
“Nationwide, it’s up,” he said.
Online, the bath salts trade starts on websites such as one from a company based in Panama, which sells a strain of the drug known as Alpha-PVP — the drug seized in Hermon and Hampden — along with several other strains.
“We do not sell illegal drugs or drug paraphernalia and none of the products sold on this site are intended to be used as or alongside illegal drugs,” the website states. “None of the products sold on this site are intended for human consumption.”
The Panamanian company sells 1 gram of bath salts, packaged under the brand name “Bliss Ultra,” for $68, and also offers a buy-one-get-one-free deal on the “collectable” items, and bulk sales.
The online advertising says the substance is “100% Worldwide Legal. Except several USA states: Indiana, Florida, Ohio,” but does not list the chemicals inside the brightly colored packages.
You never know what you’re getting, law enforcement officials in Maine have said repeatedly since the sometimes hallucinogenic stimulant arrived in the state in early 2011.
This lack of knowledge by users of the drugs has proved lethal in Maine. Designer drugs have been linked to overdoses, including two poisonings in the Bangor area that resulted in deaths last fall. The users died after consuming Alpha-PVP when they expected another strain, police have said.
The Panama website says it ships the drugs through U.S. Postal Service priority mail and couriers that offer online tracking. They take all major credit cards and money orders, and say deliveries can be shipped out in two or three days after payment is received.
In Europe, where bath salts emerged as a recreational club drug around 2005, online shops selling the drugs are monitored by the European Monitor Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction. The European agency says websites selling designer drugs have grown threefold in two years, from 170 in 2010 to 690 in 2012.
European laws banning these drugs also are being skirted by manufacturers who simply change the formula, according to the drug monitoring center, which noted that 73 new variants of designer drugs — bath salts and other new psychoactive substances — were identified in 2012 alone, bringing the total to more than 250.
Recognizing Europe’s problems, the U.S. banned the 11 major chemical components used to make the psychoactive drugs in July 2012 and also outlawed any drugs that mimic them.
The European agency also tracks distribution of the drugs, citing China, and on a lesser scale India, as primary exporters. From these countries, the drug monitoring center notes, “Cheap air freight and courier services allow drugs to be delivered rapidly to wholesalers, retailers and consumers.”
All mail — whether sent through U.S. Postal Service or private courier — entering the U.S. from abroad is sent to one of five U.S. Postal Service international mail sorting facilities. From there, the USPS sends packages to U.S. Customs and Border Protection for examination and assessing of duties.
Tom Rizzo, spokesman for the postal service in northern New England, said Maine’s U.S. Postal Inspectors work closely with drug agents from the MDEA and DEA, customs and border patrol and local authorities to investigate mailings of illegal narcotics, including bath salts.
“Postal Inspectors proactively seek out illegal drug shipments in the mail,” he said. “Specific investigative methods utilized by postal inspectors are sensitive and are confidential, but they are very effective in helping to locate drug shipments of all kinds.”
The partnership works to “to identify suspected criminal activity involving foreign parcels” and put a stop to the illegal ones, he said. Postal inspectors also use their expertise to identify and find the sender and recipients of drug packages, Rizzo said.
Feinstein said a contingent of law enforcement agencies conducted nationwide raids last summer targeting bath salts and other designer drugs after the enactment of federal drug control legislation known as the Synthetic Drug Abuse Prevention Act.
Retailers, wholesalers and manufacturers in 109 cities were raided in July and more than 5 million packets of bath salts and other drugs were recovered. Some 90 people were arrested and more than $38 million in cash was seized, according to law enforcement.
No raids were conducted in Maine, but at least three were carried out in the New Hampshire communities of Concord, Portsmouth and Salem.
“That operation, in my opinion, is an indication that law enforcement is taking proactive steps,” Lana said.
The federal ban has teeth — $1 million fines and up to 20 years behind bars for those caught dealing — and for the most part has stopped recreational users who were sitting on the fence thinking about purchasing the now illegal drugs online, he said.
“Just the fact that the DEA has scheduled bath salts as a controlled substance I think itself is a huge deterrent,” Lana said.
Outlawing the drugs stopped some purchases by users but not all, Rockland police Sgt. Don Finnegan said recently.
“They’ll order this stuff online and sell half and then use the other half,” he said of addicts in his community. “It’s coming from outside the United States.”
The addictive nature of the drugs ensures the online drug trade continues.
“It goes back to basic economics — supply and demand,” Lana said. “If there is a demand, there is going to be someone who is willing to take that risk. It can be very, very profitable … but when someone gets caught they are likely to face significant jail time.”
‘Out of the box techniques’
When bath salts first arrived in the U.S., they legally were sold online and over the counter. Since they have been outlawed, some Mainers have tried unsuccessfully to claim the substances they ordered online are legal to possess, Crandall said.
“The online purchase, possession and sale of the specific substances prohibited under Maine and federal law is a crime,” he said.
Lana said no matter what the overseas manufacturers say, the synthetic chemicals are illegal — just like scores of other drugs.
“It’s illegal to import bath salts into the United States, just like any other illegal, controlled substance — just like cocaine and other drugs,” he said. “It’s a controlled substance and we treat it just like any other controlled substance.”
The agents are reluctant to talk about how this electronic-based drug trade is policed, but Lana said tougher laws against bath salts and “outside-the-box detective techniques” have aided law enforcement in blocking illegal trade routes.
“We all work together,” he said “It’s a team effort up here.”
The most recent, significant example was three multipound seizures starting in Hermon. Four people, two from Maine and two from Texas, were arrested Jan. 18 when deputies with the Penobscot County Sheriff’s Office conducted a bail search and reportedly found them divvying up the drugs.
They all are behind bars charged with Class A felony trafficking in synthetic hallucinogenic drugs, and face a penalty of up to 30 years in prison and a fine of up to $50,000 under Maine law.
Investigators have not detailed how the four came to their attention, but one of them — 53-year-old Leonard Wells of Greenbush — has been described in court records as a “figurehead of the bath salts movement in Maine.”
This arrest revealed a lot about the local drug trade to law enforcement, and what they learned will lead to more arrests, Penobscot County Sheriff Glenn Ross said.
“What is good about this is we now know what is happening and the individuals who are doing this are more likely to be caught than ever before,” he said.
Crandall stressed that these arrests are a warning to anyone considering the false promise of legal highs. No matter what a website claims, he said, those caught ordering bath salts online will land behind bars.
“Don’t be fooled by Internet advertisements to the contrary,” said Crandall.