Pubdate: Sun, 25 Jan 2015
Source: Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier, The (IA)
Copyright: 2015 The Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier
Author: Jeff Reinitz


CEDAR RAPIDS - In the world of synthetic drugs, sometimes it takes a
chemistry lesson to get to the bottom of what's in the Mylar packet.

Sometimes it takes rats.

On Friday, a federal judge heard about both during the penalty phase
for a former Cedar Falls man and his mother, an Evansdale resident,
who were convicted of selling potpourri and bath salts that mimicked
illegal drugs.

Authorities said Mary Ann Ramos, 53, sold Alpha-PVP and XLR-11 as a
manager at an I-Wireless store in Cedar Rapids. She was found guilty
during a June trial. Her son, Earl "E.J." Ramos, 27, pleaded guilty to
similar charges in connection with substances sold at Five Star Stacks
in Waterloo.

Both were charged following a nation-wide crackdown on synthetics
dubbed "Operation Synergy" in 2013.

Although they are illegal because of their similarity to other drugs,
the new substances aren't yet listed on drug equivalency tables courts
apply to federal sentencing guidelines in order to determine punishment.

During Friday's hearing in U.S. District Court in Cedar Rapids,
Michael Van Linn, a drug science specialist with the U.S. Drug
Enforcement Administration in Washington, D.C., said Alpha-PVP bath
salts are chemically similar to methcathinone, a stimulant that sits
on the DEA's Schedule I, a list of controlled substances that have a
high potential for abuse with no medical use in the United States.

"They share the same core chemical structure," Van Linn said.

Jordan Trecki, a DEA pharmacologist, testified Alpha-PVP had
methcathinone-like effects on the human central nervous system. And he
said studies with lab rats showed the animals couldn't tell the
difference between Alpha-PVP and methamphetamine and between
methcathinone and methamphetamine.

Defense attorney John Lane, who is representing Earl Ramos, and
Michael Lahammer, Mary Ramos's attorney, asked about Alpha-PVP's
similarity to another drug, pyrovalerone, which is prescribed for
weight loss overseas and sits on Schedule V, at the less-serious end
of the DEA's scale.

Van Linn said pyrovalerone and Alpha-PVP have similar chemical
structures, but Trecki said pyrovalerone is seldom seen in the U.S.
and was placed way down on Schedule V because of treaty obligations
with countries that prescribe it.

As for XLR-11 and other synthetic marijuana found in the case, Trecki
equated them with THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, because
they act on the same receptors in the brain to cause a euphoric
effect. Rats also couldn't tell the difference in tests, he said.

Trecki said the synthetic XLR-11 may be more potent than THC, meaning
less is needed to get the same effect.

Gram-per-gram, THC actually sits higher on the punishment scale than
marijuana, so a gram of pure THC would be the equivalent of 167 grams
of marijuana when deciding a prison sentence.

Defense attorneys argued against the 1 to 167 ratio, noting it equated
pure synthetics with pure THC. Substances seized during the
investigation weren't pure. They were on inert plant material, and DEA
chemists weren't able to test for purity.

Lane noted the THC content in marijuana varies when comparing
high-potency hybrids from Colorado to "Iowa ditch weed," and he asked
the court to calculate synthetics on a 1 to 1 ratio with marijuana for
sentencing purposes.

Chief Judge Linda Reade will issue a ruling on the arguments at a
later time and schedule dates to continue the sentencing hearings.
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