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Designer drugs under scrutiny in the online marketplace

After banning opiates in the 1920s, the United States saw the manufacturing of “designer drugs,” products intended to imitate opiates’ psychosomatic effects, for the first time. These products — which today include dried plant material sprayed with chemicals, synthetic hallucinogens and cathinones, opiate chemical compounds and other potentially fatal substances — have now been banned and are among the targets of federal and state law enforcement operations. Their ubiquity in online drug marketplaces makes them a class of products monitored by LegitScript’s analysts.

Designer drugs aren’t necessarily safer or less efficacious than their traditional or natural counterparts. Use of these drugs has resulted in hundreds of ER hospitalizations and thousands of calls to poison control centers, with these incidents on the rise. Dissemination of these drugs also comprises a large industry. Manufacturers often use labels like “not for human consumption,” “designed for research only” or “all natural” in an attempt to evade prosecution, but the uptick in hospital reports of patients’ use of these drugs ultimately led to the Drug Enforcement Administration’s first crackdown on synthetic-drug trafficking. Resulting in the seizure of more than $380 million worth of products this summer, Operation Log Jam targeted “every level of the synthetic designer drug industry, including retailers, wholesalers and manufacturers” and was enormously successful. Officers arrested more than 90 people in over 109 U.S. cities and seized 4.8 million packets of illicit products — drugs with handles such as “K2,” “Spice” and “Purple Wave.”

These are names we at LegitScript are familiar with because we track the emergence and prevalence of these psychoactive high products online. It is just as illegal to sell these drugs over the Internet as it is to do it offline, and so far the DEA has faced challenges in the cybercrime aspect of the crackdown. One challenge is finding the new iterations of psychoactive products that hide behind names like “incense,” “smokable potpourri” and the now infamous “bath salts.” And Department of Justice officials said in a statement that “these chemicals can be easily synthesized to stay one step ahead of control.”

LegitScript’s analysts leverage knowledge of online drug sales, including network affiliations and registrar information, to map this rapidly evolving drug marketplace. We have been monitoring online sales of psychoactive high products for the past year and have identified more than 650 active websites that are used to sell illicit psychoactive products — sites like, and In some cases, we find related websites that sell the same products and have sales functions in common. An example is and — both marketed under the Herbalaxation banner. Furthermore, we have identified more than 1,800 psychoactive products, and consumers who are curious about products they see online can find more information about them by searching our database.

In addition to violating laws, designer drugs and similar products pose a threat to public health and safety. Our position is that maintaining public awareness of these challenges and encouraging consumers to educate themselves about the products they purchase online is of the utmost importance.