Step one to becoming an importer of designer street drugs: Email a laboratory in China.
Step two: Wire a few thousand dollars to a friendly, English-speaking customer service representative.
Step three: Wait for the postal carrier.
According to federal court documents, that is how two Portsmouth men were able to bring almost 100 pounds of an Ecstasy-like stimulant called methylone to Virginia.
No clandestine airfields. No henchmen with machine guns. No crooked customs agents.
“It’s probably easier than buying a case of wine online,” said Richard Yarow, an attorney for a man who pleaded guilty last month to helping one of the importers wire money to China. “When you buy wine you at least have to show ID” when it is delivered.
Methylone, also known as lone, is relatively new to the U.S. drug scene – so much so that Yarow and other defense attorneys involved in these cases found themselves having to do research just to figure out what their clients were charged with dealing.
A white crystalline powder that is usually snorted, swallowed or mixed into drinks, methylone gained notoriety in the United States last year as a club drug popular at raves and electronic music shows, according to court documents and federal agents.
It also is a key ingredient in a particularly dangerous drug cocktail known as “bath salts” or “plant food” that can lead users to mutilate themselves or commit suicide, experts said.
The drug’s numerous aliases are ploys to avoid state and federal regulations, federal agents said. They are not actually bath salts to be used in a tub.
On the street, methylone costs about $30 a gram or $350 an ounce. Importers sell it for $2,600 to $4,000 a pound, court documents said.
Until late last year, methylone and other “bath salt” ingredients were generally legal in the United States, with packages of bath salts readily available online and in some gas stations and head shops. Some individual states had banned the drugs, but the federal government did not take immediate action.
“It’s come on so quickly we have kind of been taken aback,” said Shawn Ellerman, a spokesman for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. “It exploded in 2011.”
In an emergency decision last October, the DEA temporarily classified methylone and two other bath salts ingredients as Schedule I controlled substances – placing them in the same legal category as heroin, LSD and marijuana.
In the past six months, federal agents have broken up two methylone importation rings in Portsmouth. Both rings appeared to be selling the drug as a substitute for ecstasy, not as an ingredient in bath salts.
Michael Casey Brown, 22, and two associates pleaded guilty last month to conspiracy to import a controlled substance. With his friends taking delivery of the packages and wiring the money for him, Brown imported more than 32 pounds of methylone from China, court documents said. He faces up to 20 years in prison when he is sentenced Oct. 26 in U.S. District Court in Norfolk.
According to court documents, Brown and his two associates – Archie Lee McClennan, 65, and his 18-year-old grandson, Alex McElhaney – gave detailed confessions when confronted in February by federal agents.
Brown said a friend gave him an email address early last year for a lab in China. He placed his first order in May or June 2011, paying $300 to $400 for about a quarter pound of methylone.
Over the next few months, he made larger and larger orders until he was buying more than six pounds at a time.
To avoid detection, Brown had the packages sent to McClennan’s home after the first order. He also had McElhaney wire the money for him, court documents said.
McClennan told agents the packages came to his house in heavy-duty plastic bags labeled “Tungsten.”
Agents found three handguns in McClennan’s home: two revolvers and a .22 caliber Derringer.
The guns resulted in additional weapons convictions for him and McElhaney.
Both Brown and the other, unnamed importer started selling methylone before it was banned by the federal government, court documents said.
According to a statement of facts submitted with his guilty plea, Brown expected the crackdown.
“It’s gonna be scheduled soon, so I’m going to double it (the price),” Brown told McClennan, the documents said.
As part of a separate investigation, agents with Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations directorate got another methylone importer last month to give up some of his buyers.
David Lee Jones, 22, and his girlfriend, December Isabelle Justice, 23, were arrested earlier this month and charged with conspiracy to possess methylone and ecstasy with intent to distribute.
Their supplier, who is not named in court documents, has not been charged. According to documents filed in Jones cases, the supplier told agents he placed 10 or 11 orders with a lab in China – ordering about 6.5 pounds at a time.
Methylone is almost identical on a chemical level to ecstasy, experts said. Both drugs release dopamine and serotonin into a person’s central nervous system, producing a sense of euphoria and diminished anxiety.
The two drugs are so similar, Jones’ supplier actually sold the methylone as a powder form of ecstasy known as “Molly,” court documents said.
Louis De Felice, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of Medicine, said methylone is “as dangerous, if not more dangerous, than ecstasy.” He said there needs to be more research into exactly how the drug affects the brain, but he’s seen nothing to indicate it isn’t harmful.
Bath salts, he said, are even more scary. He said the drug causes the brain to release more dopamine, while at the same time preventing it from leaving the brain.
Comparing the brain to a sink, De Felice said that is a recipe for disaster.
“Not only do you turn on the faucet, but you close off the drain,” he said.
De Felice said bath salts could lead to early onset Parkinson’s disease and accelerated memory loss. He believes the drug kills neurons, physically changing how the brain works.
“It can take a young brain and make it much older,” he said.
Federal policy makers are aware of how easy it is to import some synthetic drugs and are working to make it harder. But they said doing that may require the help of the Chinese government.
“What’s illicit in the U.S. isn’t always illicit there,” said Ellerman.
While all packages sent to the United States are subject to inspection, drug-sniffing dogs cannot generally detect methylone and other synthetic drugs, federal agents said. A spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection added they cannot stop people from ordering things off the Internet.
During a March meeting in Vienna, Austria, the director of the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy spoke with his counterpart in China about how to stop the international sale of methylone and other designer drugs.
“The rising threat of new synthetic drugs requires a truly international response, and we look forward to extending our cooperative work with China to address the dangers that these substances pose to the citizens of both our countries,” Gil Kerlikowske said in a statement.