In May 2012 Florida police found a man crouched low over a homeless man, eating the flesh from his face. The man was believed to be high on a synthetic drug called “bath salts,” which at the time could be purchased at local gas stations.
The incident began a crucial discussion among lawmakers about the rise of new drugs. Not long after, President Barack Obama signed a law to ban bath salts, a form of synthetic cocaine, and several key chemicals used to create synthetic marijuana. Yet, after public uproar about the “zombie drug” died down, the drugs did not.
“When Congress outlawed several of these synthetic drugs last year, traffickers did not stop producing them,” said Senator Dianne Feinstein during a Senate hearing on Sept. 25. “Instead, they slightly altered the chemical structure of illegal drugs to skirt the law.”
Synthetic drugs bring the drug war into the artificial age.
Chemists model the molecular structures of synthetic drugs after those of natural drugs, or other well-known substances like LSD or ecstasy. When regulators try clamping down, the chemists simply alter the chemical structures, which creates an ongoing flow of new and legal drugs with unknown effects.
Any thorough regulation on synthetic drugs will need to be broad and able to constantly adapt.
The question of how to regulate the new drugs was on the table during the recent hearing of United States Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control, of which Feinstein is chairman.
Feinstein introduced a bill in July, the Protecting Our Youth from Dangerous Synthetic Drugs Act of 2013, which may just have an answer.
The bill would update the Controlled Substance Act to include substances that have similar chemical structures and effects to illegal drugs. It would create a Controlled Substance Analogue Committee that would be able to keep up with regulating new synthetic drugs.
New Zealand is trying another approach. A law enacted in July will allow synthetic drugs to be sold legally if they pass rigorous safety tests. Regulations would focus on, for instance, not driving under the influence. The U.K. and Australia are watching the initiative with interest.
Synthetic drugs are packaged as harmless items like “plant food” or “potpourri” and labeled as not for human consumption. While they often mimic the effects of conventional drugs, the effects can range from frightening to catastrophic. Some rot flesh and dissolve bone, others endanger users through their uneven and unpredictable dosages, some drive people into manic and violent episodes.
Several violent and shocking crimes have been traced back to the chemicals. Bath salts were found in the home, car, and pocket of Army Sgt. David Stewart, who in April 2011 killed his himself, his wife, and his five-year-old-son. Bath salts were also believed to be involved in May 2011 when a West Virginia man raped and killed a neighbor’s pygmy goat.
Bath salts were involved in close to 23,000 emergency room visits at hospitals in 2011, found a Sept. 17 report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
Synthetic marijuana is also a growing problem, particularly among teenagers. A 2012 study found that more than 10 percent of high school seniors had taken synthetic marijuana, according to Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, who spoke during the Senate hearing. This makes it second to marijuana as the most popular drug.
Volkow attributed the rising popularity to the fact that the drugs are easy to get, cannot be detected by normal drug tests, and people often think they are natural and harmless.
“The fact is that these synthetic cannabinoids have not been tested in humans—so we don’t know how long they stay in the body, how they are metabolized or broken down, at what doses their psychological or physiological effects occur, and how toxic they are,” she said.
“Technological advances, market globalization, and the ubiquitous nature of the Internet is likely to generate a continuing flow of cheap psychoactive synthetic drugs for years to come,” she said, noting that “researchers are only beginning to chip away at the tip of the synthetic drug iceberg.”
The source of the drugs and how they’re making their way into the U.S. is another problem in itself.
Feinstein noted that “virtually all of these controlled substance analogues arrive in bulk from outside our borders.”
Synthetic drugs are being shipped—often in packages labeled as something else—directly to people’s homes. Meanwhile, chemical precursors of drugs including meth are pouring in through Mexico and then smuggled into the United States through cooperation between the Chinese triads and the Mexican drug cartels.
Following a recent drug bust, Jason Siuda, special agent with the United States Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), wrote about the roots of the drugs in a Sept. 13 criminal complaint.
Siuda said companies in China and India are the main manufacturers and exporters of synthetic drugs and analogs to the United States. He states, “Exporters of these compounds will typically mislabel the product to evade detection by customs or other law enforcement, and sell the drugs via the Internet to distributors around the world, including in the United States.”
The number of synthetic drugs is rising at an alarming rate. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime states in its 2013 World Drug Report that the number of synthetic drugs rose from 166 in 2009 to 251 by mid-2012.
It refers to the threat as “hydra-headed” in that when one is banned, even more of them appear. It states that countries around the world are looking for ways to regulate them, and that “It is obvious that legislations to control NPS are not a ‘one size fits all’ solution, and there are always exceptions to the rule.”