Terrifying headlines about synthetic drugs like “bath salts” or those with names like “flakka” that turn people into “naked, paranoid lunatics” make it sound like you’d have to be a raving lunatic to use a synthetic drug.
But synthetic or designer drug usage — including research chemicals, substances chemically tweaked so they are legal instead of illegal (like flakka), and some varieties of fake marijuana — is way too common to be considered just a raving lunatic sort of thing.
According to the 2014 Global Drugs Survey, approximately 10% of citizens from countries with more than 1,500 survey respondents (including the US, Australia, Hungary, Germany, and several other European countries) used synthetic drugs within the past year. In the US, that number is about 20% — one in five people used some form of synthetic drug in the last year.
Because the survey is a voluntary opt-in (organised by media partners like The Guardian), these numbers might be slightly higher than for the general population, but there’s plenty of evidence that synthetic drug use is skyrocketing. In the first few months of 2015, US poison control centres reported four times as many reports of bad drug reactions from synthetics than in all of 2014. The Guardian reports that we’ve seen an “unprecedented increase” in the types and availability of these drugs, according to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction.
So what makes these drugs so popular?
Perhaps the main reason is that many of them are technically legal. By changing just a couple of molecules that make up a drug, a chemist can create something that’s distinct from an illegal drug, making it easier to sell or buy it. Even though it’s illegal to make something clearly similar to illegal drugs for consumption, they can slap a “not for human consumption” label on there, at which point they are just creating a chemically unique substance that happens to be similar to something people use to get high.
Not only are they technically legal, they’re also cheap and easy to get. Synthetic marijuana and bath salts can be bought in head shops for cheap prices — $US5 to $US25, depending on variety and dose — or from online stores, where a quick search reveals bath salts “on sale” for $US15.
Online dealers — since even in the post-Silk Road era, new web bazaars pop up selling drugs all the time — can order whatever chemical formulation is popular at the time, usually from labs in China. In other cases, they can even design their own formula, like Matter journalist Mike Power did (with the help of a chemist) just to see how easy it was to order a designer drug himself, tweaking the molecules on a type of speed popular in the 1960s.
But as Nicola Davison explains in The Guardian, “this tiniest molecular tweak” that makes a drug legal “can create a drug with dramatically different psychoactive effects.”
Chemist Andrew Westwell told Power that it’s reasonable to predict fairly similar psychoactive properties for a chemically similar substances. But, he said, the slightest tweak can also cause unexpected variations. As he explains, “It is notoriously difficult to predict how a drug structure modification will affect potency, activity, or toxicology. If we could make these types of predictions with any degree of certainty, fiendishly difficult areas like drug discovery and drug development would become so much more straightforward.”
Essentially, laws can’t keep up with chemistry. The number of molecular changes that can be made to a substance is almost infinite. Shut down a market for a drug or prevent people from using it in some way — some people on parole smoke synthetic pot because it’s less likely to show up in a drug test than marijuana — and people will opt for something else, even if that thing is more dangerous and has more unpredictable side effects.
“Instead of constricting supply, drug laws focused on a group of well-known chemicals have simply pushed users towards new and increasingly dangerous forms of chemical stimulation,” Power writes in Matter. “And now attempts to enforce the law simply encourage greater, riskier innovation — and no one now knows where that will take us.”
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