Future

Up Close With Dr. Zee, The Godfather Of Legal Highs

Dr. Zee, as he's known, is an Amsterdam-based researcher who regularly invents new drugs. And they're legal — at least until authorities identify and then ban the experimental substances.

Dr. Zee sets the record straight
Dr. Zee sets the record straight
Benedict Wermter

AMSTERDAM — Very few people know Dr. Zee's real name. There's a reason for that. The "godfather of legal highs," as The Guardian newspaper once dubbed him, knows he's made a few enemies over the years. And so the less that's known about him, the better.

Dr. Zee heads a company that has been supplying Europe with "legal highs' — non-banned narcotics — since 2009. Not surprisingly, it took quite a few telephone conversations before we were finally able to meet, in Amsterdam, earlier this year. In his office, somewhere in an industrial complex in the Dutch city, he produces substances that have the same effect as illegal narcotics but are made from legally available chemicals. Some of the chemicals mentioned on a white board in his office are psychoactive and can either shut down or stimulate entire areas of the brain. They make people high, in other words. Users might see colored, breathing circles for half a day, or feel full of love for a few hours.

Dr. Zee has spent the past eight years inventing chemical formulas that he then sends to a laboratory in India. The lab produces samples of the drug in powdered form and sends these back to Dr. Zee, who then tests the drugs on himself — in ever increasing dosages — until he either feels the effect of the drug, or lack thereof. "It only happens once or twice a year that I discover something truly amazing," he says of his efforts.

People have the right to get high.

When that happens, Dr. Zee — just like a normal pharmaceutical company would — sends the drug samples to specialized laboratories for testing on animals. If the substance is shown to be safe for rats, it can then be tested by experienced drug users, so-called "psychonauts." And if it passes the human test, Dr. Zee puts in an order with the lab in India to manufacture anywhere from a few hundred kilograms to a ton of the drug, which he stores in a warehouse facility or inside a safe.

"I am not a drug developer or designer," Dr. Zee explains. "Intoxicating substances already exist. They only have to be discovered. I have commercialized these substances to provide people with an affordable, clean and effective alternative to illegal drugs. I believe that people in any society have the right to get high."

He says the system stigmatizes consumers, while the prohibition of drugs benefits those who break the law. "Our inventions could end up putting the illegal cartels out of business," Dr. Zee adds.

Cat-and-mouse game

The substances are marketed and sold online under names like "bath salts' or "research chemicals." In scientific circles, they're known as "new psychoactive substances," or NPS. When a new product appears, doctors, police and researchers scramble to identify it and determine its origins. Often, within a few years, the drug will be legally banned. In the meantime, though, Dr. Zee keeps coming out with new substances, always staying a few steps ahead.

The approach has paid off. In 2012, for example, Dr. Zee's Amsterdam lab boasted a turnover of roughly 600,000 euros per month. Much of that money, however, was used to pay taxes and overhead costs. Dr. Zee himself earns just a few thousand euros a month, enough to pay for his children's education, cover the grocery bills and put a little bit aside as savings. Still, as is often the case, success inspires envy: jealous competitors, partners and co-workers. Even jealous friends.

Those who know Dr. Zee's real name are able to follow him online on LinkedIn. They know that he is 47, was born in Israel, received his PhD in applied mathematics, and has applied for five patents. He designed algorithms for a large U.S. software company, worked on the "Human Genome Project," and spent time with an Israeli pharmaceutical company. Former colleagues praise him as being "highly talented, interesting, efficient and inspiring."

Nearly all of the legal narcotics developed by the Israeli doctor eventually end up on the desk of Volker Auwärter, head of the forensic toxicology laboratory at the University Medical Center Freiburg in Freiburg, Germany. Auwärter has taken apart and analyzed many an NPS, and warns about the potential dangers they pose. "The drugs are often effective at a very low dosage. Plus we have no knowledge of the accompanying long-term effects," he says.

There have been deaths linked to Dr. Zee's inventions. But it's not clear if the NPS alone caused the fatalities, or if others drugs were also involved. The problem, according to Auwärter and many other researchers, is that there just isn't enough information yet about NPS. Worse still, they say, is that Dr Zee has made Europeans his lab rats.

Tired of playing catch-up with drug designers like Dr. Zee, authorities in Britain, France or Germany have sought legal loopholes to crack down on NPS once and for all. German lawmakers designed laws in 2016, for example, banning the research and sale of entire substance groups — including products that haven't yet been invented. Dr. Zee, as a result, has had to focus on substance groups not included in the ban.

Europeans are his lab rats.

But what he'd really like is to turn the whole NPS conversation on its head, which is why he traveled in February to London's Shoreditch House, where he participated in a private question-and-answer session with 60 of city's young and rich elite. The guests were people who not only know Dr. Zee's products through personal experience but can also function as supporters of his products and use their influenced to lobby for more liberal drug policies.

Dr. Zee acknowledges that his view on the NPS business has changed somewhat — due in large part to concerns expressed by his wife. "My wife and I have the best possible relationship," he says. "She is completely abstinent and, nonetheless, tolerates what I do. But she worries about me when I am high."

Looking at things from her perspective helped him better understand why authorities try to ban NPS. It's because people don't know enough about the substances. They're scared. And yet because of the cat-and-mouse nature of the business, NPS inventors never have a chance to refine the substances, engage in open dialogue about them or educate the public. Instead they go back to the drawing board and come up with new substances. It's a chain of cause-and-effect he calls "default recurrence."

In Dr. Zee's opinion, it's a problem of miscommunication. The consumer doesn't have a chance to explain the deeper reasons why he or she takes drugs. Doctors aren't familiar with studies concerning the drug because it has not been officially researched and registered. And lawmakers want to adhere to their strict anti-drug policies. Dr. Zee wants people to get high safely. But for that to happen, the substances need to be legal, he says.

Dr. Zee promotes what he calls "psycho wellness." He sees NPS as helpful but intoxicating substances somewhere between medication and illegal drugs — drugs for people who have a good life but want to get high on occasion to solve a particular problem, like writer's block or dealing with a stressful superior. It was never about how wonderful drugs are or to make the world a beautiful place, says Dr. Zee — just to make society as a whole function better.

With the help of scientists, investors and the general public, legislators may one day re-imagine the entire approach to drug policy. For Dr. Zee, that would be the best high of all.

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Geopolitics

Erdogan And Boris Johnson: A New Global Power Duo?

As Turkey fears the EU closing ranks over defense, Turkish President Erdogan is looking to Boris Johnson as a post-Brexit ally, especially as Angela Merkel steps aside. This could undermine the deal where Ankara limits refugee entry into Europe, and other dossiers too.

Johnson and Erdogan in NYC on Sept. 20

Carolina Drüten and Gregor Schwung

-Analysis-

BERLIN — According to the Elysée Palace, the French presidency "can't understand" why Turkey would overreact, since the defense pact that France recently signed in Paris with Greece is not aimed at Ankara. The agreement covers billions of euros' worth of military equipment, and the two countries have committed to come to each other's aid if they are attacked.

Although Paris denies this, it is difficult to see the agreement as anything other than a message, perhaps even a provocation, targeted at Turkey.

Officially, the Turkish government is unruffled, saying the pact doesn't represent a military threat. But the symbolism is clear: with the U.S., UK and Australia recently announcing the Aukus security pact, Ankara fears the EU may be closing ranks when it comes to all military issues.

What will Aukus mean for NATO?

Turkey has long felt left out in the cold, at odds with the European Union over a number of issues. Yet now President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is setting his sights on another country, which also wants to become more independent from Europe: the UK.

Europe's approach to security and defense is changing dramatically. Over the past few months, while the U.S. was negotiating the Aukus pact with Britain and Australia behind the EU's back, a submarine deal between Australia and France, which would have been worth billions, was scrapped.

The EU is happy to keep Erdogan waiting

Officially, Turkey is keeping its cards close to its chest. Addressing foreign journalists in Istanbul, Erdogan's chief advisor Ibrahim Kalin said the country was not involved in Aukus, but they hope it doesn't have a negative impact on NATO. However, the agreement will have a significant effect on Turkey.

"Before Aukus, the Turks thought that the U.S. would prevent the EU from adopting a defense policy that was independent of NATO," says Sinan Ülgen, an expert on Turkey at the Brussels think tank Carnegie Europe. "Now they are afraid that Washington may make concessions for France, which could change things."

Macron sees post-Merkel power vacuum

Turkey's concerns may well prove to be justified. Outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel always argued for closer collaboration with Turkey, partly because it is an important trading partner and partly because it has a direct influence on the influx of migrants from Asia and the Middle East to Europe.

Merkel consistently thwarted France's plans for a stricter approach from Brussels towards Turkey, and she never supported Emmanuel Macron's ideas about greater strategic autonomy for countries within the EU.

But now she that she's leaving office, Macron is keen to make the most of the power vacuum Merkel will leave behind. The prospect of France's growing influence is "not especially good news for Turkey," says Ian Lesser, vice president of the think tank German Marshall Fund.

Ankara fears the defense pact between France and Greece could be a sign of what is to come. According to a statement from the Turkish Foreign Ministry, the agreement is aimed "at NATO member Turkey" and is damaging to the alliance. Observers also assume the agreement means that France is supporting Greece's claims to certain territories in the Mediterranean which remain disputed under international law, with Turkey's own sovereignty claims.

Paris is a close ally of Athens. In the summer of 2020, Greece and Turkey were poised on the threshold of a military conflict in the eastern Mediterranean. Since then, Athens has ordered 24 Rafale fighter jets from France, and the new pact includes a deal for France to supply them with three frigates.

Photo of French President Emmanuel Macron and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis on September 27 in Paris

French President Emmanuel Macron and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis on September 27 in Paris

Sadak Souici/Le Pictorium Agency/ZUMA

Erdogan’s EU wish list

It's not the first time that Ankara has felt snubbed by the EU. Since Donald Trump left the White House, Turkey has been making a considerable effort to improve relations with Brussels. "The situation in the eastern Mediterranean is peaceful and the migrant problem is under control," says Kalin. Now it is "high time" that Europe does something for Turkey.

Erdogan's wish list is extensive: making it easier for Turks to get EU visas, renegotiating the refugee deal, making more funds available to Turkey as it continues the process of joining the EU, and moderniszing the customs union. But there is no movement on any of these issues in Brussels. They're happy to keep Erdogan waiting.

Britain consistently supported Turkey's ambition to join the EU

Now he is starting to look elsewhere. At the UN summit in September, Erdogan had a meeting with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson at the recently opened Turkish House in New York. Kalin says it was a "very good meeting" and that the two countries are "closely allied strategic partners." He says they plan to work together more closely on trade, but with a particular focus on defense.

 Turkey's second largest export market

The groundwork for collaboration was already in place. Britain consistently supported Turkey's ambition to join the EU, and gave an ultimate proof of friendship after the failed coup in 2016. Unlike other European capitals, London reacted quickly, calling the coup an "attack on Turkish democracy," and its government has generally held back in its criticism of Turkey.

At the end of last year, Johnson and Erdogan signed a new free trade agreement, which will govern commerce between the two countries post-Brexit. Erdogan has called it "the most important treaty for Turkey since the customs agreement with the EU in 1995."

After Germany, Britain is Turkey's second largest export market. "Turkey now has the opportunity to build a new partnership with the United Kingdom and it must make the most of it," says economist Ali Kücükcolak from the Istanbul Commerce University.

Erdogan is well aware of this, as Turkey is in desperate need of an economic boost. Inflation currently stands at 19%, and the currency's value is consistently falling. Turks are feeling the impact on their daily lives: food and rent are becoming increasingly expensive, while salaries remain unchanged.

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