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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Cherkesov Turns to Chemicals

Russians know Viktor Cherkesov's Federal Drug Control Service principally for its war on veterinarians who inject cats with the anesthetic ketamine.

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But on Oct. 19, the service announced its latest stunning success: The service had broken up a gang that "over seven years had been carrying out illegal activity in the sphere of trafficking powerful substances on the territory of the Russian Federation."

But the evil drug traffickers were not some unregistered mob. It was a whole group of companies, known as Sofeks, and the substance they were selling was ethyl ether. The companies' two co-owners and managers are now in jail, Yana Yakovleva since July and Alexei Protsky since September

So what can we make of the drug police's work?

Sofeks sells a whole heap of chemical raw materials, over 300 substances in all, and has a turnover of some 800 million rubles ($29.9 million) annually.

Sales of ethyl ether accounted for roughly 0.3 percent of Sofeks' revenues over the last four years. Those who bought it included some 150 companies and organizations with military units, oil refineries and scientific institutes among the number.

An organic solvent, ethyl ether is a Table II precursor under the United Nations Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances. In other words, it can be used in narcotics production. Other precursors include acetone, toluene, sulfuric and hydrochloric acid, and two fairly popular liquids by the names of alcohol and gasoline.

In principle, then, this idea has legs. All you have to do is arrest a methadone dealer who cuts his stuff with gasoline, and then you can go after LUKoil, who sold the stuff at their gas stations in the first place.

Sofeks had been bringing the ethyl ether in from abroad. This requires a license, which Sofeks had. It was selling the substance to legal entities, for which no license is needed, but accounts must be kept -- ethyl ether is, after all, a precursor. And accounts had been duly kept.

Besides, even a mediocre linguist like myself, who finds it hard to differentiate an acid from a base, can see that Cherkesov should certainly be nominated for a Nobel Prize for chemistry. Under his leadership, the service has become a major scientific institute that has made two fundamental chemical discoveries. A Service press release reads: "From eight tons of the stated substance ... roughly one ton of various synthetic narcotics can be made, which is equal to approximately 10 million doses."

This is genuinely revolutionary -- narcotics can be prepared from a solvent! This, however, pales in comparison to another discovery in the same press release: The company was selling ethyl ether, from which the synthetic drug methadone can be derived.

There are two obvious interpretations of all this.

First, Cherkesov's boys seriously think that narcotics can be made from solvents and that the heads of a group of companies with a turnover of 800 million rubles per year that supplies 300 different products constructed the whole shebang just to sell drug addicts raw materials for their fix. (It is unclear, however, why Sofeks was charged. As I said, charges could have been brought against any filling station, distillery or even any supermarket where a junkie has bought a bottle of acetone.)

Second, instead of a war on real drug traffickers, which is difficult and dangerous, the service is actually just playing at the job while offering enterprises "protection." The Sofeks case, which they have tried to put through on the quiet -- Yakovleva has been in prison since July! -- is an attempt to establish a precedent.

It's pretty clever. Given the range and line of goods in modern industry, there is not a single chemical, petrochemical, or oil-refining enterprise that does not produce substances that could be used to produce drugs.

But never mind chemistry. Foundries are pumping out coke! Tons of it! And without licenses!

Yulia Latynina is host of a political talk show on Ekho Moskvy radio.