According to a press release and announcement from various government officials from different agencies, an investigation into drug distribution on the internet ended successfully when Drug Enforcement Administration agents arrested two drug dealers and seized their storefronts. The investigation, headed by the DEA, targeted two large-scale opioid distributors in the United States: Liangfu Huang and Wei Xu. Both suspects, although arrested on the same day and in the same investigation, independently operated their own clearnet drug stores that resembled semi-legitimate research chemical sites.
Some companies can legally sell Schedule I substances in the United States. They can legally sell drugs that fall into the catch-all category of “research chemical” drugs commonly used to describe unscheduled psychotropic substances. Cayman Chemical, for example, maintains frequent contact with the DEA in order to manufacture scheduled and unscheduled substances for research, forensic, and similar scientific purposes. At certain intervals, these companies applied to the DEA for registration as bulk manufacturers of drugs such as methamphetamine, codeine, 3-fpm, oxycodone, etc. Until recently, hundreds of companies masqueraded as similarly legitimate companies by selling only unscheduled substances (Etizolam, for instance). By selling drugs not made explicitly illegal and labelling them “not for human consumption,” many assumed they could avoid prosecution under the Federal Analogue Act.
Cases such as the United States vs. Brian Parker—the owner of RCPowders and UnbeatableChems—proved that the government prosecuted research chemical vendors and treated them no differently than any other drug dealer. Similar research chemical companies still exist. The majority of those in existence have gone underground and sell to small invite-only groups. But, not dissimilar from the darknet market sector, the clearnet drug vendor arena has so-called “companies” set up in such a way that a takedown becomes unavoidable.
Huang and Xu operated sites that fell into the “DEA magnet” category. Huang, 53, controlled arkpharminc.com. He used the site to distribute an assortment of illegal substances but heavily focused on fentanyl and fentanyl precursors. “Ark Pharm, Inc. specializes in design and synthesis of medicinal building blocks, scaffolds and other advanced intermediates,” his site’s homepage read. Traditional research chemical sites initially skirted past law enforcement via the “not for human consumption” drugs that were technically illegal. If they had outright sold illegal substances, one could safely assume they would have been taken down much sooner.
Xu operated a site potentially worse than Huang’s site. Although her site appeared more legitimate at first glance, it allowed anyone to purchase fentanyl, oxycodone, hydrocodone, and other pharmaceutical opioids. She ran 1717chem.com. The DEA made several undercover purchases to confirm Xu never even attempted to verify the identity of her customers.
The investigation involved the DEA, the IRS, Customs and Border Protection, the FDA, and several local law enforcement agencies. (Including the Northern Illinois Police Alarm System (NIPAS); and Weapons of Mass Destruction Special Response Team). Authorities charged Huang with one count of conspiracy and possession with intent. They charged Xu with knowingly distributing controlled substances. Both sites have been seized and the domains now redirect to a WordPress site under DEA control.