MOSCOW -- The trade in illegal narcotics looks set to mushroom in Russia as highly trained chemists, dispossessed by radical market reforms, seek fantastic profits from producing and selling powerful new synthetic drugs.
Russian police last year uncovered 150 underground laboratories producing and distributing a whole range of illegal drugs available at metro stations and fruit markets in Russia's major cities.
Forensic scientists are alarmed at the increasingly sophisticated nature of drugs now debuting on the market and admit they are having a hard time identifying them.
'We are getting more and more unknown substances -- no one knows what they are, and no one knows where they are being produced,' said Vladimir Sorokin, a chemist at the Russian Interior Ministry's Expert Criminalistic Center.
Recently police tracked down a narcotics ring producing thousands of capsules of 3-methyl fentanyl, a highly dangerous synthetic opiate said to be up to 400 times more potent than heroin.
When police seized the four chemistry students who were making the drug, they found notebooks full of grandiose schemes whose ingenuity amazed investigators.
'Their notes were very original, and the volume was huge,' Sorokin said. 'They clearly had very big plans, and I'm sure they would have made all the drugs sketched out in the notes. Police seized a massive amount of chemicals.'
The authorities recognized the men's talents years ago, when they were admitted to Kazan University by special order of the Soviet Higher Education Minister and even exempted from taking the university's entrance exams.
After scoring top marks in chemistry class during the day, the four men would spend their nights moonlighting in the university labs, which they turned into an illegal narcotics factory.
The students pioneered an original way of synthesizing 3-methyl fentanyl which replaced a rare and hard-to-obtain element, phenetilamine, with the poison gas phosgene, considerably simplifying the production process.
'When I showed this scheme to the rector of Moscow's Institute for Exact Technical Sciences, he said we should release them, award them doctorates and make them heads of departments,' said Arkady Kuznetsov, deputy chief of the Russian Interior Ministry's drugs control unit.
Nicknamed 'glass' because it is made with chemicals used to produce bulletproof windshields, 3-methyl fentanyl did not appear in Moscow until 1991 but is already one of the city's most popular drugs. Kuznetsov said Moscow receives 10,000 capsules of glass a day.
The highly addictive drug is known as fentanyl in the United States, where it is said to have killed at least 126 people over the last two years. Drug Enforcement Administration official Robert Bonner said earlier this year that it is 'by far the most potent and deadly designer drug we've ever seen.'
Most of the deaths are from overdosing, since according to one drug control official in Boston, 'three little grains on the head of a pin will kill.'
In the United States, it is passed off as high-grade heroin, often in packets labelled 'Tango & Cash' or 'Goodfellas.'
Introduced as an anaesthetic in the United States in the mid-1960s and clandestinely produced since 1984, fentanyl can reportedly be made only by a skilled chemist using sophisticated equipment. Yet the innovations made by the Kazan students could open the way to mass production of the drug in Russia.
The powder synthesized by the Kazan boys was transported via Moscow to labs in the Caucasian republic of Azerbaijan, where it was dissolved, poured into capsules and then distributed to major Russian cities.
Police thought they had erased Russia's main source of 'glass' when they busted the Kazan syndicate. But a month after the students' arrest, police seized 3,500 more capsules at a Moscow market. The fight goes on.
The police work is complicated by the fact that an estimated 80 percent of the retail narcotics market is controlled by Azerbaijani clans whose control centers reside in Azerbaijan. As there is no extradition agreement between Moscow and Baku, Russia can't touch them.
Kuznetsov, with a task force of 1,500 men for the whole of Russia, said he is drastically ill-equipped to fight drug traffickers who are heavily armed and often exceptionally violent.
During the recent arrest of a 10-member Moscow drug ring, police confiscated two large-caliber machine guns, six pistols, three Kalashnikov rifles, 16 hand grenades and 16 bombs, as well as 6 million rubles and $14,500 in U.S. currency.
The temptation to make, distribute and sell 'glass' is huge. One gram of the powder, when diluted, is enough for 2,000 5ml capsules, each selling for about $5 on the black market.
'People are making huge profits, and it's easy money,' Kuznetsov said.
Sorokin said chemists on tiny state salaries may find the idea of producing highly profitable drugs tantalizing. 'If you consider that chemists normally make about $50 a month, then the temptation is there,' he said.
Russia's narcotics market, though small, is growing. If in the late 1980s there were only 50,000 known drug addicts in Russia, police say there are now as many as 1.5 million -- and Kuznetsov says that's a conservative estimate.
'Glass' is still a designer drug in Russia, its use restricted to the wealthy elite -- sportsmen, pop singers, businessmen and crime bosses. But Kuznetsov is convinced that as supply increases, prices will fall and Moscow may end up with the same scale of urban drug abuse as the United States.
As drug demand grows, Russian native ingenuity is getting to work simplifying production processes to such an extent that chemical synthesis is turning into an easy -- and very lucrative -- cottage industry.
Sorokin says that of the 150 labs uncovered last year, many were just a cluster of beakers and test tubes set up in people's kitchens. He said some kinds of ephedrine-based amphetamines can be made in 10 minutes without the need for specialized equipment, using compounds sold at most pharmacies.
'There is a big danger that this kind of domestic industry will grow,' Sorokin said.
But the danger of much larger operations is even greater. In November it was reported that a group of chemists at a pharmaceuticals factory in the Latvian capital Riga had been illegally manufacturing tons of amphetamine tablets for sale in Germany. Police fear this is just the tip of the iceberg.
Kuznetsov returned to the fate of the four Kazan boys, now languishing in jail. 'The devil beguiled them,' he said with a sigh. 'They were once looking at illustrious careers. Now they're looking at an eight-year jail sentence.'
It is still unclear how many more highly trained Russian chemists, impoverished by austere economic reforms, remain to be beguiled.NEWLN: