Slippery 'Street Chemists' Target of Killea's Bill

Times Staff Writer

Assemblywoman Lucy Killea introduced legislation Monday aimed at "street chemists" who stay one step ahead of the law by producing chemical substitutes for outlawed drugs.

Killea's measure would make it a crime to manufacture, possess or sell drugs that have the same effect on the body as other drugs that are already illegal.

Killea, a San Diego Democrat, said the measure was prompted by several San Diego County cases in which drug-makers escaped prosecution because the drugs they produced did not have the exact chemical makeup of drugs defined in state law as controlled substances.

The problem centers on the manufacture of methamphetamine, or speed, which has frustrated law enforcement authorities because it can be produced with easily obtainable ingredients in homes, garages and warehouses.

Methamphetamine is itself illegal, as is possession of the chemicals and equipment commonly used to make the stimulant. But authorities and legislators have been unable to keep up with the ingenuity of manufacturers who slightly alter their ingredients to produce drugs that have the same effects as methamphetamine but are not illegal.

Would Apply to Analogs

These new substitute drugs, called "analogs," would also be illegal if Killea's bill is passed by the Legislature and signed into law by Gov. George Deukmejian. The bill would apply to analogs of any illegal drug or analogs of the ingredients used to make those drugs.

The measure would also create a shortened review process through which the state attorney general would be able to add new regulations governing the possession of chemicals used to make controlled substances.

Nancy Westergaard, a Killea aide, said the bill was prompted by problems the Escondido Police Department has had pressing charges against known drug traffickers caught with analogs of methamphetamine, including one arrest involving a pound of drugs valued at more than $10,000.

Sgt. John Houchin, head of the department's special investigative unit, said the drug-makers have "found another way to bake a cake."

"Methamphetamine is a totally synthetic drug; there's nothing natural in it," Houchin said. "So the chemists have figured out another way to produce the end product that looks the same and produces all the same effects, but when we send it to the lab, it comes back as no controlled substances having been detected," Houchin said.

Besides the one major trafficking case, Houchin said the department has been stymied in about a dozen cases of possession in which the drugs seized turned out to be something other than methamphetamine.

"Every time we put a new law into place, it seems like the crooks are busy figuring out a way to defeat it," Houchin said.

In 1986, Killea won approval for a bill imposing new permit and reporting requirements on the sale or transfer of ephedrine and three other chemicals used to make methamphetamine. That bill was hailed as a major aid to law enforcement because drug-makers were expected to find it much more difficult to obtain the ingredients they needed to make the drug.

But Houchin said manufacturers have been able to escape detection by importing their chemicals from Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico.

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