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Souped-Up Designer Drugs Flood Chicago O'Hare

Highly unpredictable new synthetic drugs—up to 800 times stronger than their natural counterparts—jet in from China and Europe every day.

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By Bryan Le

10/18/12

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American consumers' prodigious appetite for legal highs increasingly emboldens synthetic drug vendors in China and Europe to slap their wares in boxes and send them as plain old mail. Chicago O'Hare airport's international mail facility is one major entry point for these ever-more potent designer drugs. Packages recently seized there have contained substances such as a new strain of the synthetic cannabinoid "AKB48"—named in honor of a 64-member all-girl Japanese pop sensation—and a mystery beige powder designed to mimic ecstasy. The strength of some of these drugs is terrifying: “In some cases, the chemical compound that arrives in the overseas packet is 100 to 800 times more potent than its natural counterpart,” warns William Wagner, a Chicago Customs and Border Protection (CBP) scientist. “Upon ingestion, side effects can include elevated heart rates, paranoia, vomiting, severe agitation and hallucinations. It is simply unsafe to take these unknown drugs.” Despite these risks, legal thrill-seekers continue to play a substance Russian roulette with temptingly-monikered compounds like "Annihilation" and "Smiles," as authorities trip over themselves in the rush to ban every minor variation of each new high. “These unpredictable chemical combinations are sending some users to the hospital," says Steven Artino, CBP Chicago's acting director of field operations, "and others to the grave.”

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