Synthetic drugs are growing too fast for regulators to ban them

Locals attend a course on new types of drugs in eastern China’s Anhui province in 2005. (Reuters)

The good news is that fewer people are using heroin and cocaine, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, at least in the Western world. The bad news is that they find all kinds of new legal stuff to get high on.

While the use of many traditional drugs has declined, the UNODC writes in a new report, so-called “new psychoactive substances” have proliferated, and these new synthetic substances now outnumber illegal drug varieties ( there are 234, if you re follow.)

The number of “NPS” drugs in the agency’s member states fell from 166 at the end of 2009 to 251 in mid-2012.
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The “new” in their name doesn’t imply that they were invented recently – just that people have only recently started using them for mind-altering purposes. Piperazines, now used as an ingredient in an ecstasy-like stimulant, have been used as a treatment for parasitic worms since the 1950s. Ketamine, a tranquilizer for horses, is now a popular and inexpensive hallucinogen in the form of ” Special K”. The most widely used, the organization writes, are fake cannabinoids like “Spice,” which contains a compound that mimics the effect of THC.

In the United States, these NPS were the second most used substances among young people, after pot. In Europe, drug use was most common in Poland, the UK, Latvia and Ireland, where more than 8% of people aged 15-24 said they had tried them.

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The newness of the drugs apparently makes them much safer than they actually are: ketamine, for example, can cause heart and lung failure. The synthetic drug known as “bath salts” is known to induce “rabid animal behaviors like biting, kicking, and primitive viciousness.”

“This is an alarming drug problem – but drugs are legal,” UNODC said. “Sold openly, including via the Internet, NPS (New Psychoactive Substances), which have not been tested for safety, can be far more dangerous than traditional drugs.

The report notes that the drugs often come from pharmacies in East and South Asia. Trying to regulate them is like playing a perpetual game of moles, since the altered molecular structures of narcotics mean that they do not fall under international bans. In 2012, the US Congress added 26 of these drugs to the Controlled Substances Act, but their composition keeps changing rapidly to evade regulations.

When controlled in one country, the production and/or distribution centers of these substances are moved to another country so that sales – often conducted via the Internet – can continue.

The agency noted that there were 693 online shops to buy NPS in January 2012, compared to 170 in 2010. The report noted that popular traffic routes have also begun to expand across the Middle East and Africa, and profits often end up in the hands of terrorists.

Beyond the public health angle, it’s also an interesting case study of the challenges faced by law enforcement groups trying to get international regulations to follow. the rhythm of chemistry. Some national and state laws ban many of these drugs, but it can be difficult to keep up with even the most determined drug addicts:

“As soon as we make these things illegal, the criminal organizations will go back and change one molecule…one molecule and it will change the whole drug. It will change the whole structure of the drug, so the drug will become legal and we will be at again,” James Capra, the DEA’s chief operating officer, told ABC. “And that’s the dynamic of what we’re up against.”

Alvin J. Chase