In my experience as a Portland Criminal Defense Lawyer, I see people selling supposedly legal substitutes for illegal drugs. Today, many “head shops” and internet companies market items marked as “bath salts” or “plant fertilizer” or “stain remover” as legal substitutes for cocaine and MDMA. These crystalline powders have nothing to do with bathing, plants or removing stains and are actually illegal synthetic designer drugs with dangerous properties and side effects.
The drugs are based on a substance found in a natural plant called “Khat” (Catha Edulis) called cathinone. Khat is native to the Middle East and Africa and has been used for its stimulant effects for thousands of years. Khat is illegal in most countries except certain places in Africa and the Middle East. The synthetic cathinone based drugs you see in stores are solely the product of modern chemistry.
These drugs are sold under the names “Vanilla Sky” and “White Knight” and are marked “not for human consumption.” The chemists who create these substances make minor changes to the chemical structure of the drug and purport to avoid state and federal laws banning cathinone based substances. By marking the item “not for human consumption” these merchants hope that they are avoiding federal laws which broadly ban not only cathinone, but cathinone analogues.
Most people assume that if an item is marketed for sale in the United States it must be legal. This is a dangerous assumption. Cathinone itself is a Schedule I drug, meaning it is a substance that has no legitimate medical use. Possession or delivery of a cathinone based substance carries penalties on par with the possession or delivery of heroin.
Here is an example. John buys “Vanilla Sky” over the internet based on the representation that he is purchasing a legal substitute for cocaine. John decides to snort the drug in a parking lot, where he is observed by the police and arrested. The police field test the powder, and it field tests positive for cocaine. He is arrested for possession of cocaine. However, when he appears in Court the crime lab has done a more sophisticated drug test and discovered that the substance is really synthetic cathinone. John is indicted for possession of cathinone, a crime that is the is equal to possession of heroin and that can never be removed from his record.
Aside from the legal consequences, the use of these drugs is highly dangerous. While these drugs may have physical effects like amphetamine, they also can cause hallucinations, seizures and delusions. Poison control centers throughout the country continue to report high numbers of overdoses from synthetic cathinone. The long term physical effects of synthetic cathinones are unknown. These drugs are often sold by dealers who pass the drug off as MDMA (Ecstacy).
We have had many clients who naively think that they are purchasing and using a legal substance. What they discover is that cathinone is a highly addictive substance and that, even though they purchased a powder that purports to be legal they are actually in possession of an illegal substance with legal consequences equal to the possession of heroin.
As a Portland drug crimes lawyer I have one practical piece of advice: if someone is selling you something that will get you “high” you should assume it is illegal. Also, if you don’t know exactly what the drug is, you should assume that it is dangerous.
By James F. O’Rourke Jr.
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