Pubdate: Sun, 13 Apr 2003
Source: Observer, The (UK)
Copyright: 2003 The Observer
Author: Tony Thompson, crime correspondent, The Observer
Bookmark: (Ecstasy)
Bookmark: (Youth)


Pressure Of Debts Increases Temptation To Produce Drugs In University Labs

High flying science graduates are paying off student loans by manufacturing 
ecstasy and other synthetic drugs for organised gangs, the Observer can reveal.

Strict controls over the sale and importation of the ingredients needed to 
make ecstasy have led the gangs in charge of the multi-million pound trade 
to turn to chemistry students who can divert the substances from their 
legitimate research. According to the National Criminal Intelligence 
Service, financial difficulties caused by student loans have made graduates 
more vulnerable than ever.

In one case, yet to come to trial, a student gained access to a university 
lab at weekends on the basis that he was researching a chemical reagent for 
testing metals. In fact he was making ecstasy.

'He had a legitimate project that got him into the lab, and as far as 
everyone was concerned was making good progress,' said a fellow student. 
'But on the side he actually was making ecstasy. The compounds he was using 
were amphetamine based and could be turned into MDMA [the active chemical 
in ecstasy] with just two basic reactions.' The student is believed to have 
been recruited by a local drugs gang, who offered him money for his expertise.

'The structure of a modern organised crime gang is almost identical to that 
of a commercial organisation,' an NCIS spokesman told the Observer. 'They 
have a chairman figure in overall control and lower down the ranks are 
those in charge of areas such as marketing, distribution and research. The 
commodities they deal in are illegal.

'It is no surprise to find they seek out and recruit those best able to 
suit their needs. If they want to manufacture counterfeit currency, they 
target printers. If they want to manufacture synthetic drugs, they target 
those with a knowledge of chemistry. Organised crime has always exploited 
people who are needy and vulnerable and students increasingly fall into 
this category.'

It has long been an unofficial tradition for chemistry students to 
experiment with mood-altering substances, most commonly LSD, but the growth 
of the club drug industry means that, with the right contacts, such 
experimentation can be highly lucrative. The gangs also benefit because, by 
circumventing the risk and cost of importing the finished product from 
abroad, they greatly increase their profit margin.

Last year Keith Bowes, a chemistry student at Leeds University, was jailed 
for two-and-a-half years after producing 95% pure ecstasy. The 24-year-old 
claimed he had been pressurised into making the products. In a letter with 
one batch, he boasted that it was a 'fat ass dose' and 'twice as good as 
anything you'll get nowadays. Please respect this stuff as it is pure. No 
heroically munching half a gramme because you will die'.

Although some students have been caught in the act, police suspect others 
have slipped through the net because they distance themselves from the 
gangs they work for. In some cases, the students are paid to devise 
formulas which the criminals use to make the products themselves. The 
students are expected to come up with formulas that make use of everyday 
products or medicines to circumvent chemical controls.

Others take this a step further and attempt to devise new formulas which 
produce ecstasy-like effects but, because they have a different chemical 
make-up, are not technically illegal. Last year, in a bid to crack down on 
this trend, the Government listed 36 ecstasy variants including 2CB, TMA 
and DOB under the Misuse of Drugs act. However, experts say there are at 
least 179 main variants and many remain technically legal.

In addition to the availability of equipment and chemicals, making the 
drugs within an academic environment means that fumes and odours which 
might cause suspicion elsewhere can be explained.

'We suspect some students get involved only long enough to pay off their 
debts,' said the NCIS spokesman. 'Others become inspired to create their 
own criminal enterprises.'
- ---
MAP posted-by: Jackl