The dismantling of a laboratory in Chile used to synthesize the hallucinogenic drug DMT shows that an ever-widening range of psychoactive drugs is in high demand in wealthy Latin countries.
On May 24, authorities discovered a laboratory dedicated to the processing of N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT or N, N-DMT), known as the "spirit molecule." The laboratory was found in Antofagasta, a port city in northern Chile. A 22-year-old electronic engineering student was arrested and 270,945 doses of DMT were seized.
While DMT has previously been found in Chile, prosecutors said this was the first time a laboratory dedicated to its processing was discovered there.
Regional prosecutor Alberto Ayala said the seizure came after a monthlong collaboration with police and warned that it's likely a sign DMT consumption is occurring nationwide. He added the discovery "could mean serious consequences not only for our region [Antofagasta] but for the country."
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DMT is synthesized from a substance extracted from the Mimosa hostilis or tenuiflora, a plant grown and cultivated in much of Latin America, including Brazil, Venezuela, Colombia, Panama, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Belize and Mexico. It is best known for being one of the main components in the ayahuasca brew, a hallucinogenic tea often used in ceremonies by indigenous communities in the Amazon. Tourists have also been drawn to the ayahuasca experience.
Erich Ehrenfeld Zapata, head of Chile's anti-narcotics police squad (OS-7), said that the drug's raw materials were bought legally online from Brazil and that doses of 50 milligrams can be sold for 10,000 Chilean pesos ($14).
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Some indigenous communities in Latin America, such as the Maya in Mexico and various tribes of Brazil, have long recognized the healing properties of ayahuasca as well as its psychoactive effects. While often used to produce deep hallucinations, the DMT molecule has also been researched for its potential as an antidepressant.
Its processing in Chile, however, highlights that the consumer market for such drugs is increasing in one of South America's richer countries. From 2017 to 2019, the consumption of synthetic drugs, especially ecstasy, has increased by 680 percent, according to police figures.
The head of anti-narcotics of Chile's national police (Jenanco), Alejandro Eberl, reported that synthetic drugs were "originally drugs for the elite, but today, they are massively used, they are in the hands of people from different socio-economic classes."
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The United States, Asia, and Europe have long dominated the market for synthetic drugs. But more recently, wealthier South American countries have become significant consumer markets.
According to a 2017 synthetic drug report from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, South America first saw in 2013 the wide-scale appearance of this class of drugs, which include MDMA, LSD, ketamine, methamphetamines, and ever-changing compounds, such as 2-CB, synthetic cannabinoids, bath salts, and poppers.
But DMT appears to be a new player in this market. And it may take time for criminal groups to catch up, as there have been little to no reports about them capitalizing on the processing and sale of the drug.