Dumb & Dumber

If they'd sold drugs on a street corner, punishment would have been swift. Instead, they used the Internet -- and the party lasted for years.

On April 15, 1999, Joshua posted a question that set him and his mother on the road to riches -- and eventual ruin.

"What is 1,4 butanediol," he asked in a chat room devoted to discussion of drugs.

At the time, BD was legal under federal law, but the clock was ticking as police and physicians learned of its dangers. Medical experts and drug aficionados who worry about liver damage say it poses the same risks as GHB, which was illegal in more than twenty states when Joshua asked his question. Once ingested, the body metabolizes BD into GHB, delivering an identical high.

Joshua received several responses to his query. One correspondent told him that BD could be purchased for $37 per liter over the Internet but that the only source was a Canadian company.

That wasn't right. In fact, BD was -- and still is -- available from chemical companies throughout the U.S. Among other things, BD is an ingredient in printing ink and floor-stripping products. During the late 1990s, illicit users turned to BD as GHB and GBL -- another industrial solvent that the body metabolizes into GHB -- drew attention from law enforcement. Users were willing to pay big bucks for BD as sources for GBL and GHB dried up.

The Harveys were familiar with GBL, which was the first chemical they sold over their Web site. They also sold potassium hydroxide and sodium hydroxide, which yield GHB when mixed with GBL. They pitched their products as all-purpose organic cleaners that would cleanse everything from swimming pools to floors. However, Joshua wooed drug users by posting links to the Miracle Cleaning Products Web site in drug chat rooms, typically when someone asked where to obtain GBL, potassium hydroxide or sodium hydroxide.

The Harveys weren't satisfied selling just GBL, but they weren't sure what else to offer customers. The same month Joshua posted his question about BD, Cassandra updated the Web site: "I am thinking about expanding my inventory but am not sure what chemicals are in high demand. Any suggestions please email me."

As GBL sellers, the Harveys were running out of time. In early 2000, the federal government outlawed GHB and copycat chemicals for human consumption. GBL made a precursor-chemical list, meaning chemical companies had to fill out forms so the government could track sales. BD wasn't as closely regulated. Essentially it was the honor system: Although BD was illegal if sold as a drug, no federal forms had to be filled out by chemical companies or their customers.

On February 24, 2000, six days after President Bill Clinton signed the law, a message appeared on the Harveys' Web site stating that BD would soon be available if enough people were interested. On March 13, 2000, the day the law took effect and federal tracking of GBL began, there was another update. It was a curious change for a Web site aimed at people who wanted to buy a household cleaner:

"COMING SOON FROM MIRACLE CLEANING PRODUCTS. A NEW WAY TO BUY BODY BUILDING SUPPLEMENTS."

The Web site assured customers that there would be plenty of product. Anyone interested in buying BD was asked to e-mail Cassandra.

Lots of people were interested.


In June 2000, Cassandra Harvey called JLM Chemical Inc. on Park Avenue in St. Louis and asked whether she could buy BD.

"I don't know how she got our name," says former general manager Herb Seidel, who retired in October after seventeen years at JLM. "She called out of the blue."

Seidel had never heard of 1,4-butanediol, but he set up an account after finding he could get BD from Vopak USA in St. Louis County. "She said she would pay COD, and she did," Seidel says. But something didn't seem right about Cassandra.

"The material never dries -- if you pour a spot on your desk, it will be there a year from now," Seidel says. "As a cleaning solvent, I couldn't understand it."

Then there was Cassandra's insistence on purity. She complained when the BD wasn't absolutely clear, which is tough when you're dealing with an industrial-grade solvent delivered in 55-gallon drums. "She didn't want any sediment, black specks or anything," Seidel recalls. "It was so weird, you know."

To keep her happy, JLM filtered the BD as it was transferred from drums to five-gallon pails. Still, Cassandra complained that JLM wasn't getting sufficient product promptly enough. Seidel says he doesn't know of anyone else in St. Louis who was buying BD, yet Cassandra expected to buy large amounts on short notice. The product was coming from Texas by way of Nebraska -- it would be cost-prohibitive to make special deliveries instead of including her BD with regularly scheduled rail shipments of other chemicals. But Cassandra wouldn't listen.

"She was very angry about that," Seidel says. "I said, 'Cassandra, you've got to understand you're a businesswoman operating out of her home with no obvious business location. For God's sake, recognize that you're just getting started in business.' Most of the time, she was very difficult, to say the least. She wanted her material, and she wanted it a certain way."

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