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When can the synthesis of drugs in a research lab be a crime?

On Behalf of | Mar 3, 2023 | Criminal Defense |

Many university researchers in the areas of organic chemistry and biochemistry utilize or produce controlled substances in their labs for the purpose of furthering scientific knowledge on the development of new and better medications.

This begs the question of the legality of using and creating controlled substances for scientific purposes. Is there a point when the production of a controlled substance in a research lab crosses the line into a drug crime?

The use of controlled substances for scientific research

Scientific researchers are permitted to use or produce controlled substances in their labs, with certain restrictions. Specifically, they must be a federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) license holder, be licensed for the specific substances they are working with, and follow all federal storage and security regulations.

So the problem lies not in the proper use of controlled substances for scientific research, but in activities involving these substances for non-scientific, non-research purposes.

Drug manufacturing and trafficking

Let’s look at the example of amphetamines, which are controlled substances. Amphetamines are Schedule II stimulants. They are used medically to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, narcolepsy and even obesity. But they are controlled by federal law because they have a great propensity for abuse.

A graduate student with extensive knowledge in synthetic organic chemistry who works in a research lab that is studying compounds in amphetamines might know or could easily figure out how to make amphetamines and likely has access to the necessary materials to do so.

They may have created a common amphetamine while at work. Doing so, as long as it was for the purpose of furthering research and their principal investigator has all proper credentials for utilizing and synthesizing amphetamines, might not be considered illegal drug manufacturing.

But, say that graduate student, out of curiosity, takes some of the amphetamines produced in the lab home for their own personal use. Soon, they are addicted to the drug.

Fueled by addiction or the promise of earning a significant amount of money for selling the drug, they produce greater quantities of the drug in their lab without the permission or knowledge of their principal investigator, bring the results home and start selling the drug to other users.

Now, the drug is no longer being synthesized for research purposes and it is being distributed to others. Now, we might have crossed the line into drug manufacturing and drug trafficking, federal crimes with significant penalties.

The federal government does not take drug crimes lightly, especially crimes involving Schedule II drugs. It is essential that professionals using these substances or producing these substances for scientific purposes do so with the proper credentials, follow all state and federal laws and regulations, and do not cross the line between acceptable research and personal use.