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Illegal Synthetic Drugs Prompt Amendments to Federal Sentencing Guidelines

By David E. Hubler, Contributor, In Public Safety

In January, the United States Sentencing Commission (USCS) sought public input into ways to make federal sentencing for drug convictions more uniform. One of the experts who spoke was Keith Graves, a recently retired 29-year police veteran who supervised a Narcotics Special Operations Unit in California and now teaches police departments how to conduct drug investigations.

“In past decades, law enforcement only had to worry about a few drugs like heroin, methamphetamine and cocaine,” Graves told the commission. “But the new century brought with it new drugs. These new drugs brought with them a new scourge that has impacted our country in ways that we were not prepared to handle.”

In 2016, there were more than 63,000 deaths from drug overdoses in the United States. The sharpest increase in deaths was related to fentanyl and fentanyl analogues (synthetic opioids). These synthetic drugs accounted for more than 20,000 overdose deaths in 2016, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Illegal Synthetic Drugs More Powerful and Addictive than Other Drugs

Illegal synthetic drugs are much more powerful and addictive than cocaine, heroin or methamphetamine. “This is really harmful stuff, it’s killing people,” Graves told In Public Safety. Graves, who graduated with a master’s degree in criminal justice from American Military University, now heads his own consulting business in Boise, Idaho. He teaches police departments how to conduct fentanyl investigations.

“You can’t treat somebody who’s dealing fentanyl – the number one cause of drug overdoses in the U.S. – the same as you would someone who’s dealing heroin,” he explains. “That’s because one kilo of fentanyl is the equivalent to 50 kilos of heroin.”

Law enforcement agencies are finding fentanyl in every drug imaginable. “We’ve found it in methamphetamine, in cocaine, in spice [often called “synthetic marijuana” or “fake weed”], in bath salts. You name it, we’ve found it,” Graves said.

In addition, law enforcement can’t handle fentanyl evidence like regular evidence, he adds. Because of fentanyl’s extremely high potency, “you have to treat it like a hazardous material. You need to wear Personal Protective Equipment like an N95 mask or a respirator, along with nitrile gloves and eye protection. Inhaling fentanyl accidentally can result in illness or death.

Analogue Synthetic Drugs Pose Special Problems for Law Enforcement

Powerful illegal synthetic drugs known as “analogues,” are a chemical cousin of the original drug. Many of these analogues were never brought to market, but they were patented and research papers written about them. Years later, underground chemists copied the original work to sell on the black market. Analogue synthetics are often produced in illegal labs, which are not government-regulated. So these drugs vary widely in potency and can often result in overdoses and deaths.

Low Cost of Fentanyl Production and Ease of Distribution Make It Popular among Drug Cartels

A kilo of fentanyl can cost about $3,300 to manufacture, Graves says.

Drug cartels reap huge profits from the sale of fentanyl pills because they need nothing more than a lab to process the drug. Trafficking in heroin, on the other hand, requires farms to grow opium poppies and multiple labs to process and refine the poppy seeds into the drug.

Then there is the problem of smuggling the heroin into the United States.

Synthetic drugs are easily smuggled into the U.S. “You order them online and have them delivered to your home through the Darknet from China,” Graves explains. Mexican drug cartels have now joined China as a major exporter of synthetic drugs, especially fentanyl.

Not all synthetic drugs are illegal. Synthetic drug makers will take an illegal drug and make a slight variation in the molecular structure of the drug to make it legal under the Controlled Substances Act.

The legally produced analogue drug carfentanil, for example, is one of the most potent opioids. It has substantially the same narcotic effects as morphine.

The difference is in carfentanil’s potency. “One dose of carfentanil is the equivalent of 10,000 morphine pills,” Graves says.

Carfentanil is so powerful that when veterinarians handle the drug legally to sedate large animals like elephants, they must wear protective gear. The gear prevents vets from inhaling carfentanil or absorbing it through their skin. Used illegally, carfentanil is a lethal product.

Illegal Drug Producers Try to Get Around the Controlled Substance Act

Illegal drug producers are always trying to thwart the Controlled Substance Act. When a substance is added to the list, drug dealers will modify the formula slightly, so the drug is no longer expressly prohibited by state or federal drug laws.

Even slight alterations in analogue drug formulas make it difficult to regulate synthetic narcotics, says the NY Criminal Defense blog.

As an example, Graves cites an analogue known as U47700, which the Drug Enforcement Agency outlawed as a Schedule 1 drug.

“So drug dealers in China came up with U48800. All they did was change a molecule and that circumvented our Controlled Substance Act,” Graves said. “When we cracked down on U48800, they just came out with U49900.”

Illegal Use of Benzodiazepines Is Growing

Graves warns that the next big problem on the synthetic drug front is the increasing illegal use of benzodiazepines, a class of drugs primarily used for treating anxiety.

“We’re seeing more overdoses because of those [drugs]. I don’t think we’re doing enough to keep up with the trends as they come out. The Controlled Substance Act is antiquated. It was passed in 1914. Drugs are changing at a rapid pace and we’re not keeping up with that,” Graves says.

He wants U.S. drug laws changed to keep up with the spread of illegal drugs, especially synthetic drugs and drug analogues.

“I let [the commission] know that I think there needs to be harsher penalties for people dealing in synthetic drugs,” Graves says. “I didn’t tell them what I think those penalties should be; obviously, that should come from a judge.”

On April 30, the United States Sentencing Commission (USCS) submitted amendments to the federal sentencing guidelines for illegal drug offenses to Congress. One of the amendments addresses the growing scourge of synthetic drugs, which are largely responsible for the explosion of drug overdoses and deaths in the U.S. in recent years.

If Congress approves the amendments, they will become effective on November 1, 2018.

About the Author: David E. Hubler brings a variety of government, journalism and teaching experience to his position as a Quality Assurance Editor at American Military University. David’s professional background includes serving as a senior editor at CIA and the Voice of America. He has also been a managing editor for several business-to-business and business-to-government publishing companies. David has taught high school English in Connecticut and at Northern Virginia Community College. He has a master’s degree for Teachers of English from the University of New Hampshire and a B.A. in English from New York University. David’s 2015 book, “The Nats and the Grays, How Baseball in the Nation’s Capital Survived WWII and Changed the Game Forever,” was published in paperback last May by Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. To reach him, please email For more articles featuring insight from industry experts, subscribe to In Public Safety’s bi-monthly newsletter.


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