A Chinese national was sentenced to 18 months in federal prison for conspiring to distribute an illegal synthetic performance enhancing drug, the Department of Justice announced Tuesday afternoon.
Xu Jia Bao (a.k.a. Fred Xu), 48, is the principal of Shanghai Waseta International Trade Co. Ltd, a China-based distributor which calls itself "the leading manufacturer and exporter of amino acids, herbal extracts and nutritional supplements." That makes it part of the enormous Chinese chemical industry, which is responsible for 40 percent of global production of active pharmaceutical ingredients alone.
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This is not the first time that Xu and Waseta have faced sanctions from the Department of Justice. In 2018, both Xu and the firm plead guilty to separate charges of wire fraud—Waseta was given one year probation and charged a $500,000 fine.
Xu was convicted for having worked with a purported American dietary supplement manufacturer—actually a government informant—to sell Chinese-made synthetic stimulant ingredients under false labeling to American distributors. Xu told the informant that the Waseta ingredients would be deliberately mislabeled, and that he was aware that American retailers would refuse to carry supplements which they knew otherwise contained those stimulants.
Among these stimulants was Dimethylhexylamine (a.k.a. DMHA or octodrine), a shipment of which Xu and Waseta sent to Texas as part of the deal. According to a recent review in the journal Brain Sciences, octodrine is a central nervous system stimulant that is often marketed as a "pre-workout" product to enhance athletic performance. Originally marketed as a decongestant in the 1950s, octodrine reemerged as a performance enhancer in 2016. It has been found to increase pain threshold and cardiac rate, but is also linked to potentially hazardous heart rate and pain, and may lead to dependence.
"Dietary supplements that contain undeclared synthetic stimulant ingredients pose a risk to the health of U.S. consumers," said Charles L. Grinstead, Special Agent in Charge, FDA Office of Criminal Investigations' Kansas City Field Office. "We will continue to investigate and bring to justice those who jeopardize the public health by importing and selling misbranded supplements."
Octodrine is actually just a part of what the journal article calls a "rapid expansion in the number of commercially-available psychoactive substances … with a distinct pharmacology and very little associated research evidence on their physiological or side effects." Many, if not most, of these drugs are synthesized in China before being distributed to users in the United States, often through mail order.
The Xu sentencing is significant, then, not only because it stopped a potentially dangerous criminal conspiracy, but also because it highlights the more general problem of Chinese-made synthetic drugs filtering into the American supply. Although the most-prominent example is fentanyl (responsible for some 40,000 deaths in 2017) lesser-known drugs like octodrine share a common origin: China, where a largely unregulated industry churns out new and more dangerous drugs every year.