Budding enterprises

While it might seem that little harm is caused by selling benign products to those looking for illegal substances, the problem of fake drug sales can actually be far more serious.

In the bizarre annals of fraud cases, this one seems, at first glance, especially unusual. In October, 27-year-old Jamie Lee Taylor, a resident of Gresham, Middlesbrough, in northeast England, was sentenced to prison for having sold laundry powder as cocaine (See Scams and Shams, Jan./Feb.).

When police arrested Taylor in September on an unrelated matter, he had three ziplock bags of the fake drug in his possession. Perhaps assuming it was not a crime to rip off people willing to purchase an illegal substance, he boasted that he’d perpetrated the fraud up to 50 times a day.

according to The Sun newspaper.

He would have been far wiser to have said nothing.

A bit of a career criminal — he had 53 previous offences on his record, including robbery and drug offences — Taylor discovered that what he had done was indeed against the law in the UK.

He was charged with offering to supply cocaine to others and possession of an article for use in fraud — the three bags of white powder. “Essentially, the defendant is purporting to sell drugs in the way that a drug dealer would sell drugs,” the prosecutor, Rachel Masters, said. “He’s making a fair bit of money out of it as a result.”

Taylor pleaded guilty and faced up to seven years in prison, a sentence in keeping with the sale of actual cocaine.

Judge Simon Bourne-Arton was somewhat perplexed when it came to passing sentence. He questioned whether he should apply sentencing guidelines assigned to offences involving real drugs. “It’s just not easy to work out what the principles of sentencing are in your case,” he said, and delayed his decision several days to consider what to do.

After his deliberations, Judge Bourne-Arton ruled that, despite Taylor’s record in relation to actual illegal drugs, he could not sentence him “on the basis that you are a professional and persistent drug dealer.”

He jailed Taylor for 31 months: two years for the drug offence, six months for having violated an existing suspended sentence and one month for having breached a conditional discharge.

SOAP AS COCAINE

Although it would seem the Taylor case is highly unusual, in fact the sale of fake illegal drugs is not that uncommon.

In Canada, “it is a crime under Section 5 of the Controlled Substances Act to traffic in illegal drugs or to hold out a substance as a real narcotic,” says Daniel Brown of Daniel Brown Law in Toronto. “Selling baking powder but claiming it is cocaine [for example] can attract the same penalty as trafficking in cocaine.”

He notes that in 2004 Larry Lee Aldrich was convicted of doing just that in Alberta Provincial Court for having sold soap to an undercover RCMP officer on the pretense that it was cocaine.

In the US, criminaldefenselawyer.com posted this question, perhaps from a budding entrepreneur:

“I sold a baggie of Aspirins that I said was OxyContin to a guy at a concert. After the show, I heard that there were undercover officers in the crowd. Could I be busted for selling fake drugs?”

The answer: “Yes. States and federal laws make the sale of fake drugs illegal, and you can even be charged with an attempted drug sale under some laws,” a crime that, in the US, can result in serious jail time.

The website added that “taking money from someone under intentionally false pretences is fraud [because] under the law, an intentionally and materially false statement relied upon by another constitutes fraud.”

An obvious attraction to those enticed to sell fake illegal drugs — other than the considerable profit margins — is the likely reluctance of victims to report the fraud to authorities. That changes, however, when the purchasers turn out to be undercover officers.

Peter Sheridan Moldenhauer of Missoula, Mont., learned that lesson in 2011 when he offered to sell two undercover officers a sheet of white paper that he said contained LSD for US$20. The officers had received a tip that Moldenhauer, who had recently been released from prison on another charge, was attempting to trade LSD for other drugs. When he was arrested, police discovered the LSD was fake.

Moldenhauer was charged with criminal possession of an imitation dangerous drug and criminal fraud and ultimately received an 84-month sentence.

There can be a mitigating factor in a fake-drug fraud charge, however. “A person who lacks knowledge that he is dealing in a fake substance has not committed fraud,” criminaldefenselawyer.com notes. “So, if you had received a baggie of tablets from a third party who told you it was OxyContin and then you sold the substance as OxyContin to another person, you would not be guilty of fraud or of selling a counterfeit drug with the intent to mislead or defraud another.”

While it might seem that little real harm is caused by selling benign products to those willing to break the law under the belief they’re obtaining illegal substances, the problem of fake drug sales can actually be far more serious. Too often, the fake drug is anything but harmless.

DEATH BY ECSTASY

In 2013, the deaths of six young people in Florida and at least three in suburban Chicago were attributed to a fake version of the popular club drug ecstasy, ABC News reported. “In Florida, the fake ecstasy, called PMA or paramethoxyamphetamine, and PMMA, or paramethoxymethamphetamine, is killing young people by raising their body temperatures to as high as 108 degrees.”

In June 2016, two teenagers died in separate incidents after taking fake ecstasy at the T in the Park Festival in Scotland. The paramethoxyamphetamine pills, which are green and have the prestigious Rolex symbol on them, have been associated with a slew of deaths in recent years, mostly of young people attending music concerts.

The sale of fake illegal drugs, however, is negligible compared with the global traffic in fraudulent pharmaceuticals, a problem that Newsweek saidwas “exploding” in a September 2015 report. The magazine cited a 2013 case in India in which 8,000 people died over a five-year period in a remote Himalayan hospital “because an antibiotic used to prevent infection after surgery had no active ingredient.”

Two years earlier, worldfinance.com had noted, “With 800 illegal products circulating the global market with a value of close to US$200 billion, counterfeit drugs are costing both the pharmaceutical industry billions and the people who take them their health.”

SYNTHETIC WEED

As the likelihood increases that marijuana will soon be legalized in Canada (28 US states have legalized its use in some form), it is also likely that a black market will continue to exist, one that includes the sale of what’s known as synthetic marijuana. It can often be found in so-called head shops, where it’s sold as incense and for consumption.

“Synthetic cannabinoids refer to a growing number of manmade mind-altering chemicals that are either sprayed on dried, shredded plant material so they can be smoked (herbal incense) or sold as liquids to be vaporized and inhaled in e-cigarettes and other devices (liquid incense),” according to the US National Institute on Drug Abuse. “These chemicals are called cannabinoids because they are related to chemicals found in the marijuana plant. Because of this similarity, synthetic cannabinoids are sometimes misleadingly called ‘synthetic marijuana’ and they are often marketed as safe, legal alternatives to that drug. In fact, they may affect the brain much more powerfully than marijuana; their actual effects can be unpredictable and, in some cases, severe or even life threatening.”

The CBC reported last year that an Edmonton woman suffered severe psychological problems after smoking some synthetic marijuana. A primary concern, according to Alan Hudson, an associate professor of pharmacology at the University of Alberta, is the lack of knowledge of the side-effects caused by the various chemicals in the drug. “What is known, Hudson said, is that the drugs are many times more powerful than natural cannabis and can cause psychosis in some people,” the CBC reported. “He said there has been a recent increase in people winding up in hospital after smoking the drugs.”

It’s naive to think that the appetite for drugs will ever go away. People have been consuming one drug or another since the beginning of time. The only logical way to protect users from harm is to control and regulate their sale. That way the fraudsters, from those selling household detergent to those marketing toxic pills, will have a smaller market to traffic in. It’s high time society found a new solution to this pervasive problem.