The lawless world of synthetic drugs

Bizarre, NakedLaw, News, Rights

Flakka. K2. Spice. Bizarro. Scooby Snax. Molly. Trainwreck. Krokodil. 2C. N-bomb. Smiles. Cloud 9. Mojo. There are so many synthetic recreational drugs on the street right now that the media are having a difficult time deciding which one to sensationalize next.

The EU’s drug agency reported in 2015 that there were at least 101 new legal highs, known as new psychoactive substances (NPS) by policymakers, available online or at the local headshop.

The report adds to the more than 450 substances already on the watch list. The situation is no different in the United States, where the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has identified between 200 and 300 new designer drugs from eight different structural classes, the vast majority of which are manufactured in China.

What is referred to as “synthetic marijuana,” sold as herbal mixtures sprayed with various chemicals, was reported to have sent over 11,000 people to the emergency room (ER) in 2010. Washington D.C. saw a sudden spike in ER visits associated with synthetic cannabinoids, from an average of 30 cases a month to 439 in June of 2015. In Broward County, one hospital reported seeing 20 Flakka-related ER visits in one day. That spring, police forces in several states declared a state of emergency.

How can law enforcement cope with drugs that change their form from one month to the next?

The origin of synthetic drugs

“Synthetic cannabinoids” are not the only drugs being consumed. New analogs of Ecstasy, cocaine, amphetamines, hallucinogens, and opiates are also freely available on the dark web, epitomized by the infamous drug network Silk Road.

China is now a target in what is being referred to as a new front in the drug war, where suburban laboratories near port cities churn out thousands of tons of synthetic drugs and precursor chemicals every year. Many of the chemicals being shipped overseas are so new that the Chinese Ministry of Environmental Protection does not even have them listed on their registry, and companies skirt the China Food and Drug Administration by registering their products as “research chemicals.”

These companies can deliver an order to the United States in five to ten business days, and some insure a replacement delivery if a shipment is seized. The products are sold with ambiguous labels such as plant food, potpourri, shampoo, cleaner, or industrial solvent.

According to the U.S. State Department, the Obama administration has raised the issue of synthetic drugs in talks with China. While there have been some symbolic busts, most of the arrests are focused on preventing middle class Chinese kids from using Ketamine. The Chinese government has shown little interest in stemming the tide of research chemicals and NPS to foreign shores.

“They just didn’t see what was in it for them to look into their own industries exporting these chemicals,” said Jorge Guajardo, the Mexican ambassador to China from 2007 to 2013, in a phone interview with the New York Times. “In all my time there, the Chinese never showed any willingness to cooperate on stemming the flow of [drug] precursors into Mexico.”

The multibillion dollar methamphetamine market run by Mexican cartels import the majority of their chemical supplies from China.

Enforcing current laws a constant challenge

The U.S. Controlled Substance Analogue Enforcement Act (aka the Federal Analog Act) was passed in 1986 to address the threat of a wide range of new designer drugs hitting the streets, but it merely defined a list of illegal chemical classes popular at the time, and did not go far enough in addressing the problems that drug analogs would come to pose to law enforcement.

In response to the rapidly changing ways in which chemists were inventing NPS, lawmakers passed the Synthetic Drug Abuse Prevention Act of 2012, which added certain classes of synthetic cannabinoids and two substituted cathinones­—mephedrone and MDPV—to the federal controlled substances act.

Yet even this did not go far enough in stemming the tide of new analogs, which is why Congress passed the Protecting Our Youth from Dangerous Synthetic Drugs Act of 2015. As opposed to banning particular drug classes, the law creates a Congressional committee informed by chemistry experts called the Controlled Substance Analogue Committee. The committee would have the authority to fast-track regulation of synthetic drugs and precursor chemicals.

But without support from foreign countries, a globalized free trade economy will be hard to monitor, and will almost certainly include easy exchange of dubious, hallucinogenic shampoo. All this might make one wish for the drug problems of yesteryear. Though we might also question if the drug war we’ve been conducting for decades now might partly be responsible for driving users and profiteers toward ever cheaper, more attainable—and in some cases, more dangerous—alternatives.

Related articles on NakedLaw: