A West Hollywood man has been charged with manufacturing a batch of "designer drugs" that led to the deaths of three men in Fresno, according to a federal indictment.
The indictment, unsealed Thursday at the U.S. District Court in Fresno, accuses Kenneth Baker, 43, of manufacturing 60 pounds of synthetic heroin since 1983. The indictment accuses six other men of distributing the drug.
Brian Leighton, an assistant U.S. attorney prosecuting the case, said the three men who died from overdoses in early 1984 purchased the drug from dealers who were supplied by Baker. The manufactured drug also is suspected in a series of fatal overdoses in the San Francisco Bay Area.
So-called designer drugs are manufactured by chemists in clandestine laboratories. Until recently, most designer drugs were legal. By changing the molecular structure of fentanyl--a surgical anesthetic that is the most common base for designer drugs--chemists created legal heroin-like variants. By the time scientists would decipher the chemical structure of a new drug and governments would outlaw it, chemists would have designed a new chemical cousin.
In making a case against Baker, prosecutors are using Food and Drug Administration laws. He faces 26 charges, including conspiracy and attempting to defraud the FDA, distribution of a drug without a label or a list of ingredients and failing to register the drug with a federal agency. If convicted on all charges, he could face up to 80 years in prison.
"We researched the codes to come up with something," said Leighton, who added that it may be the first time that such statutes have been used in designer-drug cases. "If we didn't take this approach, people who had made these drugs couldn't be punished. And they should be punished in the same way as if it were a controlled substance, and maybe more so, because it's so potent."
The various forms of synthetic heroin can be as much as 1,000 times more potent than the real thing. And because most of what is sold to users is filler or "cutting" agents, addicts never know how much of the actual drug they are injecting at a time. More than 100 deaths have been attributed to designer-drug overdoses in California in the last two years.
Baker has not been charged in the deaths, but Fresno County Dist. Atty. Ed Hunt said he is considering filing homicide charges.
Baker was arrested last July when federal agents said they found him operating a clandestine laboratory that was manufacturing a fentanyl variant. The charges were dropped because the drug was not illegal at the time.
The Legislature has since outlawed all drugs of the fentanyl family, and similar legislation is pending on the national level.