Back in the early 2000s, drug users in search of alternative experiences were able to turn to websites selling a new generation of substances that were at the time referred to as “research chemicals”. For a number of years, seemingly exciting new ways in which to get high were available at the click of a mouse from companies based mostly in the US, which sold these drugs globally ostensibly solely for the purposes of scientific research. Those who wished for something a little different from more traditional illicit substances such as cocaine, ecstasy or LSD were able to obtain obscurely-titled chemicals such as 5-MeO-DMT or 1-propionyl-lysergic acid diethylamide, many of which aimed to mimic the effects of MDMA or psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms.
At the time, narcotics enthusiasts viewed the online availability of research chemicals as ushering in a new era in which they would be able to easily get their hands on an ever-changing and evolving menu of exotic substances. Over a number of years, many of these chemicals morphed into so-called legal highs, which were sold legitimately as an alternative to the illicit drugs they were intended to emulate. Now outlawed in many countries, these drugs are now mostly consumed by members of vulnerable groups such as prisoners and the homeless, having been largely rejected by recreational users.
Nearly 20 years on from the controversy that surrounded the online availability of research chemicals, the imagined future of an endless supply of new psychedelic substances has failed to become a reality. Instead, recreational drug users have by and large returned to using more traditional substances, while at the same time beginning to abuse prescription medicines in greater number – a practice that has become particularly popular among young people. Peculiar as it may have sounded just after the turn of the millennium, instead of experimenting with then-unheard-of new drugs, the youth of today have turned to prescription medication used to treat conditions such as anxiety, attention deficit disorder and pain, such as Xanax, Adderall and Percocet. Somewhat more bizarrely, young people across the world are increasingly abusing a drug derived from codeine-based cough syrups, a cultural phenomenon that was first made popular by rap artists in the US during the 1990s.
Commonly referred to as Purple Drank or Purple Lean, the substance is made by mixing prescription-strength cough syrup with fizzy pop drinks or sweets. Once consumed, Purple Lean provides users with a sense of euphoria and dissociation from the body. While long-term use can lead to addiction and a whole host of health problems, as with any opiates taken in large enough doses, Purple Lean can kill. The chances of dying from a codeine overdose while drinking Purple Lean rise significantly when it is consumed with other drugs or alcohol. While taking the drug has been popular in the US for more than two decades, evidence suggests that its use is spreading to other countries, thanks in no small part to a new generation of American rappers who advocate its benefits in their songs.
A recent investigation conducted by UK radio station LBC revealed that British children are making Purple Lean after obtaining liquid codeine from drug dealers on Instagram. One UK user told the broadcaster that he became interested in the drug after watching rappers consume it on social media. The rising popularity of Purple Lean both inside and outside of the US has been very much driven by depictions of its use on online platforms such as YouTube and Instagram, with a study published last year by the JMIR Public Health Surveillance journal finding that “the prevalence of codeine misuse images, glamorising of ingestion with soda and alcohol, and their integration with mainstream, popular culture imagery holds the potential to normalise and increase codeine misuse and overdose”.
In Nigeria, the abuse of codeine-based cough syrup became such as issue that the country’s government last year banned the production and importation of such products after a BBC investigation revealed that teenagers were becoming addicted. Ministers said at the time that the ban would apply to all sales of cough syrup containing the drug without a prescription across the whole country, and that no new import licences for codeine as an ingredient for cough syrup would be issued.
Abusing cough mixture might well sound absurd to members of the so-called “Trainspotting Generation” who were more used to taking substances such as heroin and ecstasy in the 1990s, but consuming Purple Lean can be equally as addictive and deadly as almost anything they might have taken while they were young. It is not without reason that some people refer to the drug as “liquid heroin”. While the feared advent of an age in which an ever-changing array of new substances would be available online has not materialised, it is perhaps more alarming that young people are now becoming addicted and in some cases dying as a result of consuming medicine that is routinely kept in many people’s bathroom cabinets.
Western nations must ban the ‘transplant tourism’ that is costing Chinese prisoners of conscience their lives
Regardless of how wealthy you are, the likelihood is in most western nations that you will need to join a lengthy waiting list if you are told you require an organ transplant. Unfortunately, owing to a major shortage of organ donors in most countries, many people on these lists die before they can secure the new body parts they require. In the US, 20 people pass away each day while in search of a suitable donor, while in the UK more than a quarter of those waiting for a transplant can except to lose their lives before a suitable match becomes available. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this pushes many transplant patients who can afford to do so to seek out alternatives abroad, even though the trade in human organs is illegal in most countries across the globe. This has led to the emergence of a thriving black market in harvested organs, which are typically taken from the bodies of vulnerable healthy donors.
While in many cases organ brokers source body parts from impoverished, poorly educated individuals in developing countries who are typically paid a paltry sum in exchange for their sacrifice, some donors are compelled to give up their organs against their will, a large number of whom die as a consequence of doing so. Many of these donors fall victim to the organised criminal networks that control the illicit global trade in human organs, but in some cases, nation states have become involved in the harvesting of body parts, and are profiting from the misery on which the trade is based.
Earlier this week, the International Coalition to End Transplant Abuse warned that China is continuing to kill prisoners from religious minorities such as Falun Gong for their organ, despite having said in 2014 that it would stop doing so. A tribunal convened by the coalition found that transplant waiting lists at Chinese hospitals are incredibly short, and that as many as 90,000 transplant operations a year are being carried out across the country, which is a far higher number than government figures suggest.
The tribunal’s findings have piled pressure on western governments to ban so-called transplant tourism to countries such as China, and have resulted in calls for doctors and medical organisations across the globe to stop working with the country in fields relating to organ transplantation. But whether its revelations will result in real change anytime soon remains to be seen. While several western governments across the globe are considering legalisation to ban transplant tourism, there appears to be little urgency when it comes to pushing these new laws through in some countries.
In Canada, a bill that would outlaw organ tourism is currently awaiting Senate approval, but might not receive it by the end of the current parliamentary session. Over in America, the US House of Representatives passed a resolution back in 2016 that condemned “state-sanctioned forced organ harvesting” and called for a US State Department investigation and new restrictions, neither of which have been forthcoming. In March of this year, a cross-party group of British MPs called for a ban on UK citizens travelling to China for organ transplant operations, urging the UK government to impose similar restrictions to those imposed by Italy, Spain, Israel and Taiwan. Since then, no action has been taken.
The UK’s Daily Telegraph this week revealed that children and adults at risk of being killed for their organs are fleeing to Britain in greater number, albeit from a very low starting point. It has been reported elsewhere in recent years that terrorist organisations such as Daesh stole organs from captured enemy fighters to treat its injured militants, and that people smuggling gangs have started taking organs from migrants as payment for being smuggled into their countries of choice. Sad as it is, there is often little western nations can do to prevent practices such as these, abhorrent as they may be.
Things are different with China though. In the face of substantial evidence that the Chinese state is complicit in the murder of prisoners for their organs, the global community has a responsibility to make it clear that this type of barbarism will not be tolerated. Putting the question of whether it is ethical to allow people to willingly sell their internal organs aside for a moment, it surely cannot be right for a nation state to sanction the murder of prisoners solely for the purpose of using their body parts in transplant operations, many of which can cost many tens of thousands of dollars. While desperate people with the financial means to do so will always go to great lengths to secure the organs they need to stay alive, western nations in particular must do all they can to stop China profiting from a brutal trade that sees the country’s prisoners of conscience treated as commodity.
Only a total ban on secondary sales can stamp out music and sports ticket fraud
Music fans and sports enthusiasts across the globe will often go to great lengths to secure tickets to events involving their favourite artists or teams, with a significant number routinely willing to pay multiple times the face value of tickets from a reseller should a concert or game they wished to attend have sold out. For many, the desire to get hold of tickets to these types of events can be so strong that their judgement can become clouded, resulting in some would-be revellers or spectators taking financial risks they might not in other circumstances. Organised criminals have become adept at exploiting this passion, raking in millions by selling sports and music lovers counterfeit tickets, often at hugely inflated prices. The illicit trade has continued to thrive for years despite frequent warnings from law enforcement agencies encouraging consumers to exercise caution when purchasing event tickets.
Appealing to music and sports fans ahead of the busy summer period, during which many concerts and sporting events are scheduled to take place, Britain’s national fraud reporting centre Action Fraud this week launched an awareness-raising campaign designed to encourage members of the public to only buy event tickets from authorised sellers. The organisation revealed that it had received 4,755 reports of ticket fraud in the 13 months to the end of April this year, noting that victims across the UK lost £1,654,888 ($2.08 million) to scammers over that period. This works out to an average of £365 per victim. Data recorded by Action fraud suggested that ticket fraud activity appears to peak over the summer months, with the agency observing a rise in the number of cases in August last year. Over in the US, a poll conducted by ticketing technology maker Aventus revealed last September that around 12% of Americans said they had bought a concert ticket online that later turned out to be fake. Some two-thirds of respondents said they worried they might get scammed when purchasing concert tickets on the internet.
The ticket resale market has become a huge business over recent decades, with companies such as StubHub and Viagogo raking in billions of dollars a year by providing a marketplace on which users can trade event tickets and passes. This has proven to be a massive boon to touts, who use bots to buy up large numbers of tickets to popular events before selling them on for a massive mark up. While these sites still suffer from problems related to the sale of counterfeit or unauthorised tickets, they have taken steps to address the issue, with some offering refunds to users who do get scammed. But while measures such as these might result in buyers getting their cash back if they are unfortunate enough to buy fake tickets, they cannot prevent fans being left disappointed and out of pocket if they travel to an event venue before realising the tickets they have are unusable. In May, football enthusiasts were warned that tickets sold on reseller sites for the Champions League final in Madrid, Spain, were unauthorised, and could leave many who had bought them unable to watch the game.
Away from online reseller outlets, fraudsters often set up their own fake ticket websites. Buyers who use these can expect to be sent counterfeit tickets, not be sent any tickets at all, or be told to meet a representative from the seller at the venue on the day of the event to collect their passes, only to find that nobody turns up. Earlier this month, a man from Illinois in the US told reporters how he had paid $433 for tickets to see former Beatle Paul McCartney, only to be turned away from the venue after his tickets were found to be bogus. In instances such as these, consumers often struggle to get their money back, unless they are able to take advantage of protection offered by their card provider.
It is perhaps most risky to buy event tickets from vendors on social media, auction sites or fan forums. But while many people realise this to be the case, sports and music fans can sometimes be so desperate to get their hands on the tickets they want that they are willing to take the risk. A poll conducted by UK bank Barclays in April of this year revealed that 40% of millennials in Britain would use social media to buy event tickets from private vendors, despite being aware that doing so is high risk. The survey found that 37% of millennial festival-goers said they had fallen victim to three or more ticketing scams, highlighting how easy it is for fraudsters to target this demographic. Scammers are also able to take advantage of social media by skimming information from images of event tickets that people post online. The organisers of the Glastonbury Festival in the UK this year warned buyers not to upload pictures of their tickets to social media platforms over fears that fraudsters could use barcodes and other information to create cloned passes.
No matter what measures are put in place by reseller websites or other platforms on which counterfeit event tickets are sold, the fact that sports and music fans are willing to go to such great lengths to see their heroes in the flesh makes it unlikely that the fraudsters will be going out of business anytime soon. The only real way to tackle the problem is to outlaw the secondary ticketing market altogether, but to do so would result in the destruction of a multi-billion dollar worldwide business, as well as the disappearance of a marketplace that works perfectly well for many people, even if it does allow morally-questionable touts to take advantage of people’s passion for the arts and sport. But without such a ban, people will continue to be conned by fake ticket vendors, regardless of how many campaigns are launched to raise awareness of the issue.
The extraordinary lengths to which South American cartels will go to ensure their drugs reach the most profitable markets
Although cocaine production levels may have soared across South America in recent years, drug cartels based in the region face a constant battle when it comes to staying one step ahead of the global law enforcement agencies charged with making sure traffickers are unable to smuggle their product to markets in the west, where they are typically able to make the most money. In September of last year, a report published by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) revealed that cocaine production had hit record highs in Colombia in 2017, despite a peace deal being struck the previous year between the country’s government and rebel group Farc, and billions being spent on America’s decades-long war on drugs. But while rocketing production levels are certainly a potential boon for the organised criminal networks behind the distribution of South America’s most famous export, they count for littlie if the cartels are unable to ship their cocaine to wealthy nations in which the price they can charge per kilo rockets.
Last year’s Global Drug Survey revealed that while illicit substance enthusiasts could pay as little as €5.40 ($6.10) for a gram of cocaine in Colombia, those wishing to partake of a line of two in New Zealand would have typically needed to stump up €211.70. With such a huge disparity between what end users are willing and able to pay, it makes obvious business sense for drug cartels to get their cocaine to markets in which it can be sold for the highest price. To do so successfully, South American traffickers must consistently outwit customs investigators whose job it is to prevent them from shipping their drugs to the most profitable markets, and repeatedly come up with new ways of sneaking their product across borders to customers who have the means to pay the highest prices. As authorities become wise to each new smuggling method over time though, a steady stream pf ever more ingenious alternatives are required to take their place.
Earlier this month, police in Spain revealed they had arrested 11 suspected drug smugglers after customs officers discovered nearly a tonne of cocaine hidden inside specially-made bogus stones that had been imported into the country from South America. The conspiracy was broken up after undercover investigators tracked members of the gang behind the trafficking operation, which is said to have had links to a domestic stone importation firm. Police raided a warehouse in Madrid after the stones were transferred there from the port of Barcelona following their arrival on a boat that had travelled from Ecuador. After breaking up the fake stones with hammers, detectives found 785 packages of cocaine, each of which was estimated to contain in excess of 1kg of the drug.
Impregnated plastic pellets
Separately, Spanish investigators last month detained 12 members of a South American drug trafficking network that imported cocaine-impregnated plastic pellets into the country, before extracting the drugs at three specialist labs in Madrid and Toledo. The gang had flown over three experts from Colombia who worked round the clock to separate the cocaine from the pellets, into which the drug had been injected so as it could be more easily taken thorough customs checks while being transported from its country of origin and into Spain. Investigators who raided the gang’s labs discovered 30kgs of cocaine paste, 1kg of cocaine powder, 600kgs of pellets impregnated with cocaine, and 3,000 litres of chemical products used during the extraction process.
In an extraordinary cruel case, a crooked Venezuelan vet last September pleaded guilty in a US court to turning young puppies into drug mules by sewing containers filled with liquid heroin inside their bodies for a Colombian trafficking gang. Andres Lopez Elorza confessed to stitching the drugs into the stomachs of young Labrador retrievers, which would then be flown from Colombia on commercial jets to New York City. Having made it through customs, the canines would be killed when the heroin was ripped from their bellies. Elorez was jailed in six years in February after admitting a single charge of conspiracy to import a controlled substance to the US.
Bounty on sniffer dog’s head
Demonstrating further disregard for the wellbeing of animals, members of a Colombian drugs cartel were last July said to have placed a bounty of up to $70,000 on the head of a sniffer dog who had helped the country’s customs officers find 10 tonnes of cocaine concealed in suitcases, boats and large shipments of fruit. The notorious Gulf Clan, which has developed a reputation for using extreme violence and intimation to protect its trafficking routes, was reported to have offered the money to anybody who killed German shepherd Sombra, after the dog played a pivotal role in the discovery of five tonnes of the group’s cocaine that was hidden in crates of bananas.
Aging and middle class drugs mules
Conscious of the fact customs officials are typically suspicious of a certain profile of passenger when it comes to screening for drug mule activity, South American cartels appear to have sought to recruit a new type of narcotics courier less likely to attract unwanted attention. Back in December of last year, law enforcement authorities in Portugal cautioned that trafficking networks were recruiting elderly cruise ship passengers to act as mules on liners travelling from South America and the Caribbean to Europe. Official sources issued the warning after British couple Roger and Susan Clarke, then aged 72 and 70 respectively, were allegedly caught with cocaine worth an estimated $2.5 million after returning to Europe from the Caribbean on a cruise boat. Earlier in 2018, a court in Australia jailed a Canadian woman for eight years after she admitted helping to smuggle cocaine estimated to be worth more than $21 million into the country in similar circumstances. Melina Roberge was arrested in August 2016 when Australian customs officers raided the luxury Sea Princess cruise liner while it was docked in Sydney Harbour having previously stopped off in South America.
- Western nations must ban the ‘transplant tourism’ that is costing Chinese prisoners of conscience their lives
- European police agencies seize 550 tonnes of counterfeit pesticides in latest edition of Operation Silver Axe
- Criminal money mule recruiters increasingly targeting middle-aged Britons, UK fraud prevention agency finds
- Wastewater analysis shows Australians taking more methamphetamine, heroin and MDMA
- European Union funds new coalition to tackle online wildlife traffickers across member states
9 February 2018
9 February 2018
8 February 2018
28 November 2017
28 November 2017
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