Synthetic drugs are very dangerous. Let’s legalize them.

CBS News warns of a “scary new designer drug” on the streets of Chicago. The Washington Post identifies a “deadly craze” plaguing cities and towns across Alabama. And regulators are scrambling to criminalize new chemical variants. Federal and state governments enact broad bans to cover all psychoactive synthetic drugs, even if traffickers change the chemical composition.

But the prohibitionist approach to drugs is partly responsible for this development and will surely not succeed in stopping it. Instead, we should adopt a harm reduction strategy based on the regulation of synthetic drugs within a legal framework.

On the one hand, there is no “epidemic” of these drugs among adolescents, as sometimes reported in the media. Natural marijuana, the mildest and least harmful of the illegal drugs, remains by far the illicit drug of choice for teenagers. the University of Michigan Future Watch A 2014 study found that about 35% of high school students said they had used marijuana in the past year, and that figure has remained remarkably stable over the past two decades.

This same study showed that synthetic marijuana use is much less of a factor, and even this modest rate steadily declines among eighth, 10th, and 12th graders. Between 2010 and 2014, reported use among high school students over 12-month periods fell from 11.4% to less than 6%, as the adverse health consequences of designer drugs became more widely known.

The trend of using bath salts (an artificial psychoactive drug made from the East African Khat plant) has shown a similar trend. In 2012, less than 2% of high school students reported using bath salts in the previous 12 months. In the 2014 survey, it was barely 1%.

Despite these low consumptions, opponents say we need to strictly regulate or even ban these synthetic drugs because they are so dangerous. Synthetic versions often vary wildly in potency and purity. Buyers have no way of determining before ingesting the product whether it has been contaminated with another substance that may be unexpectedly dangerous or even toxic.

CNN correspondent Tricia Escobedo highlighted a key problem associated with the current approach to managing designer drugs. “Nobody really knows what’s in these so-called synthetic drugs,” she noted. But it’s not really a problem unique to these substances; it is an inherent problem with all illicit drugs. By driving drug use underground, prohibition laws put the trade in the hands of dodgy companies with inadequate quality control standards or criminals looking for a quick and massive return on their investment.

Rather than launching a new front in the war on drugs (a strategy that has already failed with marijuana, cocaine, and heroin), policymakers should focus on a harm reduction approach. For synthetic drugs, this would mean creating a legal framework in which the trade in these products would be dominated by legitimate companies. Laws should focus on requiring production under sanitary conditions, accurate labeling of all ingredients, and inclusion of warning labels for consumers about the adverse health consequences of improper use.

A modest harm reduction strategy would not be a panacea. Some people will continue to abuse synthetic drugs, just as they do other illegal substances, alcohol, and prescription drugs. They will suffer consequences on their health. But regulating the synthetic drug trade within a legal framework is an achievable goal that would reduce the negative impact.

This is a much better approach than adding another front to the futile war on drugs.

Alvin J. Chase