A Chinese Chemical Company And A 'Bath Salts' Epidemic

A Chinese Chemical Company And A 'Bath Salts' Epidemic

10:16am Jun 16, 2014
An empty lab used by China Enriching Chemistry, which was accused of shipping illegal drugs to the U.S. Eric Chang, the company's director, is currently in jail in China, where he was charged with producing ecstasy.
An empty lab used by China Enriching Chemistry, which was accused of shipping illegal drugs to the U.S. Eric Chang, the company's director, is currently in jail in China, where he was charged with producing ecstasy.
Frank Langfitt / NPR
  • An empty lab used by China Enriching Chemistry, which was accused of shipping illegal drugs to the U.S. Eric Chang, the company's director, is currently in jail in China, where he was charged with producing ecstasy.

    An empty lab used by China Enriching Chemistry, which was accused of shipping illegal drugs to the U.S. Eric Chang, the company's director, is currently in jail in China, where he was charged with producing ecstasy.

    Frank Langfitt / NPR

  • Empty chemical drums sit in a deserted lab accused of shipping illegal drugs to the U.S.

    Empty chemical drums sit in a deserted lab accused of shipping illegal drugs to the U.S.

    Frank Langfitt / NPR

An empty lab used by China Enriching Chemistry, which was accused of shipping illegal drugs to the U.S. Eric Chang, the company's director, is currently in jail in China, where he was charged with producing ecstasy.

An empty lab used by China Enriching Chemistry, which was accused of shipping illegal drugs to the U.S. Eric Chang, the company's director, is currently in jail in China, where he was charged with producing ecstasy.

Frank Langfitt/NPR

There were times a few years back when the emergency room at SUNY Upstate University Hospital in Syracuse looked like a scene from a zombie movie. Dr. Ross Sullivan, a physician there, recalls one afternoon when staff wheeled in a man with dilated pupils who was covered in sweat.

"The patient was screaming obscenities, and anybody he would pass, he was threatening and saying he was going to kill them," Sullivan recalls.

Police suspected the patient had taken "bath salts," the notorious synthetic stimulants that were ravaging scores of American communities at the time.

It took 10 people to hold him down, and even then he was able to break a limb free. Eventually, they injected him with a sedative.

"We probably used 10 times the dosage we would have used in a nondrug-induced person," Sullivan says.

In central New York around that time, bath salts sent hundreds of people to emergency rooms for hallucinations, seizures, even heart attacks. But what most people didn't know is that some of the drugs wreaking havoc in New York state — as well as in Southern California, Virginia and Texas — were created thousands of miles away in a lab in China, according to a federal indictment.

A Mystery Drug

When law enforcement in New York State first came upon the drugs, they couldn't figure out what they were. The ingredients in bath salts didn't test positive for heroin, ecstasy or cocaine. That's the reason they were marketed as a "legal high," and sold in convenience stores and head shops.

James Burns, assistant special agent in charge for DEA operations in upstate New York, says that was by design. The chemists making the drugs were tweaking the formula so users wouldn't test positive for a controlled substance.

"It's damn clever on their part," Burns says. "It's been a real challenge to keep up with this stuff."

Law enforcement in Syracuse got a lucky break around Halloween 2010, when police responded to reports of a woman who was on the porch of her home firing a shotgun at what she believed to be ghosts.

"Local police went into her house and they found 7 kilograms of what they thought might be cocaine and a shipping label from CEC Ltd., Eric Chang," says Assistant U.S. Attorney Carla Freedman, who prosecuted the case.

CEC stands for China Enriching Chemistry, a small company with an office in Shanghai and a factory in neighboring Jiangsu province. Eric Chang is its director.

The drug that police found in the woman's home wasn't cocaine, but a factory-made derivative of mephedrone, a dangerous, hallucinogenic stimulant.

The woman was part of a Syracuse drug ring that, police say, had ordered more than 100 kilograms of mephedrone from Chang, using his company's website and a professional courier service.

Freedman says Chang was a shrewd businessman.

"It was right there on his website that if your package is seized, he'd keep shipping till you get it," she says. "He was charging about $5,400 a kilo. His profit margin, we are pretty sure, must be enormous based on how much it cost to make it."

Big Business

"Eric was very friendly," says journalist Mike Power, the author of Drugs 2.0: The Web Revolution That's Changing How the World Gets High. Power got to know Chang over the phone and by email while he was working on an expose on mephedrone for the Daily Mail on Sunday, the London newspaper.

A number of people had died in the United Kingdom from mephedrone, and Power says he was hunting for a kingpin. Posing as an online buyer, Power found Chang's contacts.

A Daily Mail reporter based in Hong Kong went undercover inside Chang's Shanghai lab. Photos published by the newspaper showed squalid conditions. The floors were covered with dirty pieces of cardboard, and cabinets were splattered with orange chemicals.

Power says Chang came off as "an ambitious, successful guy that was driving an expensive SUV, drinking lots of Red Bull energy drinks. He was a very busy guy, living in a fancy apartment — complaining his wife never saw him because he was so busy."

Power says Chang also appeared to be a big producer and showed him FedEx dockets of shipments to Europe to prove it. Power said he planned to order what he personally thought was a huge quantity of the drug, about 10 kilograms a month for two years. But, he says, Chang was dismissive.

"He thought it wasn't particularly impressive," Power recalls.

Shanghai has a big, legitimate pharmaceutical industry. Power — who never actually ordered the mephedrone — says factories like Chang's branched out into recreational drugs in response to orders from Europe. It was far cheaper to outsource chemical synthesis than to do it in the United Kingdom. Power says it seemed like a logical extension of multinationals offshoring the manufacture of sneakers and home furnishings.

Investigators say Chang made around $30 million selling drugs to the U.S. and Europe. China banned mephedrone in 2010, but Chang remained free. American authorities say he shipped drugs to central New York as recently as February 2013.

Last year, Chang was named in a federal indictment in Syracuse. Without an extradition treaty, American authorities couldn't touch him, but they did tell the Chinese.

Empty chemical drums sit in a deserted lab accused of shipping illegal drugs to the U.S.

Empty chemical drums sit in a deserted lab accused of shipping illegal drugs to the U.S.

Frank Langfitt/NPR

Going To The Source

Last week, I went to Chang's headquarters in a mid-rise office complex near Shanghai Stadium. The lights were out. A bike sat parked behind an empty reception desk.

I met his mother, Wang Guoying, who was working in Chang's office. She said policed arrested him last November. She also complained how hard it is running the company without him.

A staffer named Zhang Mingjie said the firm is currently selling anti-AIDS drugs to India, but a company brochure I picked up still advertised mephedrone. Sienna Tang, who handles exports for the company, said 20 cops raided the office late last year.

"I come here about 10 o'clock, so many people in this office," she said in English. "I'm afraid, just because so many policemen asked me [questions]."

Tang says her boss didn't tell her much about what she was shipping. "I just know the shipping name," she said, "but I do not know the exact material."

Chang's attorney says he's in jail now, charged with producing ecstasy. Shanghai police declined to discuss the case or explain why they didn't bust Chang earlier.

Back in Syracuse, the situation has improved, according to Michele Caliva, who runs the Upstate New York Poison Control Center, which works with hospitals in the region. She says the state health department banned stores from selling bath salts and police cracked down on head shops.

"The accessibility was really key," she says. "The fact that the average person could no longer just casually go in and buy it made a difference."

Caliva says the region still has serious drug problems, but by last year, emergency room admissions for bath salts — and stories about crazed users — had plummeted.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

A notorious synthetic stimulant, known as bath salts, ravaged scores of American communities a few years back. Particularly hard-hit, was upstate New York. Hundreds there ended up in emergency rooms for hallucinations, seizures, even heart attacks. What most people didn't know then, according to a federal indictment, was that some of the drugs wreaking havoc in New York, as well as in Virginia, Texas and Southern California, were created thousands of miles away in a lab in China. NPR's Frank Langfitt has the story from Shanghai.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: There were times when the emergency room at SUNY Upstate University Hospital in Syracuse looked like a scene from a zombie movie. Ross Sullivan, a physician there, recalls one afternoon when staff wheeled in a man with dilated pupils who was covered in sweat. Sullivan spoke to us by Skype.

ROSS SULLIVAN: The patient was screaming obscenities, and anybody he would pass - he was threatening and saying that he was going to kill them.

LANGFITT: The patient, who police suspected had taken baths salts, tried to get away.

SULLIVAN: The rest of the security team showed up. I would say about 10 men were holding him down. Even with this, he was still able to occasionally break a limb free.

LANGFITT: They eventually injected him with a sedative.

SULLIVAN: We probably used about 10 times the dosage that we would've used in a non-drug-induced person.

JAMES BURNS: To be honest, this is the first case that we had really had that involved a synthetic drug that we didn't know what it was.

LANGFITT: James Burns is assistant special agent in charge for DEA operations in upstate New York.

BURNS: It wasn't testing for cocaine. It wasn't testing for heroin or any of the other known drugs at the time.

LANGFITT: And that was by design. Burns says the chemists who made the drugs were tweaking the formula so users wouldn't test positive for a controlled substance.

BURNS: It's damn clever on their part, and it's been a real challenge to keep up with this stuff.

CARLA FREEDMAN: And then we got a lucky break.

LANGFITT: Carla Freedman is an assistant U.S. attorney in Syracuse. She says the case turned after police responded to a report about a woman freaking out one night in a city neighborhood.

FREEDMAN: She was standing on the porch of her house, firing a shotgun, screaming that there were ghosts. Local police went - they went into her house, and they found seven kilograms - what they thought might be cocaine or MDMA and a shipping label from CEC Limited, Eric Chang.

LANGFITT: CEC stands for China Enriching Chemistry. It's a small company with an office in Shanghai and a factory in neighboring Jiangsu province. Eric Chang is its director. The drug police found in the woman's home wasn't cocaine but a factory made derivative of mephedrone, a dangerous hallucinogenic stimulant. The woman was part of a Syracuse drug ring, which police say had ordered more than a hundred kilos of mephedrone from Chang using his company's website and a professional courier service.

MIKE POWER: Eric was very friendly. He spoke by phone. He spoke by e-mail.

LANGFITT: Mike Power is the author of "Drugs 2.0: The Web Revolution That's Changing How the World Gets High." Back then, he was working on an expose on mephedrone for the Daily Mail on Sunday, the London newspaper.

POWER: There've been a number of deaths from methedrone in the United Kingdom, and I wanted to see if I could find the kingpin, I suppose.

LANGFITT: Posing as an online buyer, Power found Chang's contacts. A Daily Mail reporter based in Hong Kong went undercover inside Chang's Shanghai lab. The floors were squalid, covered with dirty pieces of cardboard. Cabinets were splattered with orange chemicals. Power says Chang came off as driven.

POWER: An ambitious and successful guy that was driving an expensive SUV, drinking lots of Red Bull energy drinks. He was a very busy guy living in a fancy apartment above town. He was complaining that his wife never saw him 'cause he was so busy.

LANGFITT: He also appeared to be a big producer.

POWER: We ordered a gigantic quantity of this drug. And I said that we'd want to buy about 10 kilos a month for the next two years. And he kind of dismissed that as slightly small fry, you know. He thought that that wasn't particularly impressive.

LANGFITT: Shanghai is a big, legitimate pharmaceutical industry. Power, who never actually ordered the mephedrone, says factories like Chang's branched out into recreational drugs, in response to orders from Europe.

POWER: It's much cheaper to outsource chemical synthesis work to China than it is to do the work yourself in the U.S. or the U.K. or most parts of Europe. And it does seem a logical extension, in many ways, of the outsourcing that began once China opened up to international trade in sneakers and home furnishings. Why not designer drugs?

LANGFITT: Investigators say Chang made about $30 million selling drugs to the U.S. and Europe. China banned mephedrone in 2010. Eric Chang, though, remained free, and U.S. authorities say, continued to ship drugs to central New York as recently as February, 2013. Last year, Chang was named in a federal indictment. Without an extradition treaty, though, American authorities couldn't touch him. But they did tell the Chinese. Last week I went to Chang's headquarters in a midrise office complex near Shanghai Stadium.

I'm at China Enriching Chemistry right now, and there's nobody sitting at the reception desk. Just a - a bicycle, actually, is parked there - doesn't look like anyone's sat there in a long time.

ZHANG MINGJIE: (Foreign language spoken).

LANGFITT: I met a staffer named Zhang Mingjie. He said the firm is currently selling anti-AIDS drugs to India. But a company brochure I picked up still advertised mephedrone. Next, I ran into Sienna Tang who handles exports. She told me 20 cops raided the office late last year.

SIENNA TANG: I come here about 10 o'clock. So many people in this office - I'm afraid just because so many policeman ask me.

LANGFITT: What questions did they ask?

TANG: What does Eric do? Which material you have export?

LANGFITT: Tang said her boss didn't tell her much about what she was shipping.

TANG: I just know the shipping name, but I do not know the exact material.

LANGFITT: Police arrested Chang in November. His attorney says he's in jail now, charged with producing ecstasy. Shanghai police declined to discuss the case or explain why they didn't bust Chang earlier. Back in Syracuse, the situation has improved.

MICHELE CALIVA: It was pretty impressive how everybody came together to tackle this problem.

LANGFITT: Michele Caliva runs the Upstate New York Poison Control Center, which works with hospitals in the region. She says the state health department banned stores from selling bath salts, and police cracked down head shops.

CALIVA: The accessibility was really key, and the fact that the average person could no longer just casually go in and buy it, made a difference.

LANGFITT: Caliva says the region still has serious drug problems. But by last year, emergency room admissions for bath salts and stories about crazed users had plummeted. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Shanghai. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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