The hide-and-seek of designer drugs
What’s Trending Oct 19, 2015
The hide-and-seek of designer drugs

In 2008, about 80 synthetic drugs existed. By 2013, the number increased to 348.

The UNODC report depicted, after 2009, hundreds of new psychoactive substances have flooded markets worldwide and many of these substances are yet to be controlled, especially at the international level. This meant that even if new synthetic drugs were made illegal in the United States, they remained uncontrolled in their countries of origin, leading to easy access in the country via the Internet.

Commenting on the recent surge in new compounds, Jill Head, a forensic chemist at a DEA research lab in Dulles, Va said, “In the last five or six years we’ve seen upwards of 350, almost 400 new drugs emerge.”

The widespread danger of these drugs emerges from their three characteristics: they are unpredictable, they are dangerous and addictive in nature, and these drugs are marketed as “safe”. Such marketing gimmicks have lowered inhibitions as more and more associated emergency visits are being witnessed.

The DEA can declare drugs temporarily illegal as they surface. The process, known as emergency scheduling, gives the agency some room to assess the drug before officially terming it illegal. However, Barbara Carreno, Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) spokesperson, said “drug makers can tweak substances and come up with new ones faster than the regulatory process allows us to schedule them.”

Following reports of violent acts and a sharp escalation in drug-related emergency department admissions and calls to poison control, at least 40 states and the federal government have banned numerous chemicals in designer drugs. The DEA enacted an emergency ban on five chemicals in November 2010 and a broader ban, known as the Synthetic Drug Abuse Prevention Act of 2012, in July that covers 31 compounds found in bath salts and synthetic marijuana.

There are still hundreds of possible chemical combinations that could be different enough to escape regulation. Prior to the latest ban going into effect, law enforcement already reported a number of new drug formulations that had a chance of escaping regulation. It is extremely difficult to ban every known and “soon-to-be-created” designer drug.

Instead, such measures are likely to have unintended consequences. One such concern associated with outlawing broad categories of substances is the created limitation scientists will have to face for the determination of their effects and research them as treatments for medical conditions.

These drugs are placed in Schedule I, a category for substances that have no credible medical use. The classification restricts research access, discouraging most pharmaceutical companies from developing Schedule I drugs due to the extra expense involved and less likelihood of being government approved.

Another significant reason for bans on designer drugs being unsuccessful is the huge profit that comes with the manufacturing and distribution of designer drugs. It’s estimated to be a $5 billion business, according to the North American Herbal Incense Trade Association.

The chemicals can be imported from China or India at low cost, engineered through a relatively simple process by just following a few instructions and then sold for $15 to $20 per packet. Since the drugs are addictive in nature, relatively cheap and readily available, high demand makes them an extremely lucrative opportunity for some sellers.

More research needs to go into the rising phenomenon of designer drugs. Categorizing these drugs as Schedule II will allow the synthetic drugs to be studied, but not sold. It is probably a good time to reconsider this continuous game of catch-up that has been influencing producers and consumers towards more dangerous and unknown substances.