Should the FDA Regulate Recreational Drugs?

New synthetic drugs are popping up at such a rate that the government can't ban them fast enough. Maybe we should talk about regulating recreational substances instead

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On Thursday, in its first major bust of synthetic designer drugs, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) arrested 90 people around the country for the alleged sales, importation and distribution of substances including “bath salts” and various types of “fake marijuana.”

“[T]his enforcement action has disrupted the entire illegal industry, from manufacturers to retailers,” said DEA Administrator Michele Leonhart in a statement, noting the seizure of nearly 5 million packets of marijuana-like drugs and 167,000 packs of bath salts (amphetamine-like substances called cathinones) as well as precursors that could have produced roughly 300,000 more such packs. The Feds also seized $36 million in cash.

These synthetic drugs are typically sold over-the-counter as “legal highs” in head shops, convenience stores and gas stations in packets with various brands, including Ivory Wave and Vanilla Sky. Each specific product is sold until their particular ingredients are banned; to get around bans, sometimes new ingredients are simply introduced under the same brand name. Earlier this month, President Barack Obama signed a law banning two dozen of the most common bath salt drugs, but experts estimate that there are at least 100 different bath salt chemicals currently in circulation. Trying to ban them all has become a giant game of whack-a-mole. As the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, Dr. Nora Volkow, told the Associated Press, “The moment you start to regulate one of them, they’ll come out with a variant that sometimes is even more potent.”

(MORE: The Cannabis Cannibal? Miami Face-Eater Didn’t Take ‘Bath Salts’)

Unlike other substances that people use recreationally, little is known about the effects of the new synthetic drugs, not even in the short term. Drugs like alcohol, marijuana, heroin, amphetamine and cocaine have been studied for decades, and we know a great deal about how to treat medical problems associated with them. Some have lengthy histories of medical use, and alcohol and marijuana specifically are known to have been taken by humans for thousands of years.

But none of the synthetics on the market have ever been tested on humans. Their use has been associated in the media with bizarre and violent behavior, but no one really knows how they affect the brain or whether these widely cited effects relate to the drug’s specific pharmacology. The drugs’ lethal dose isn’t known. Nor is the best — or any — way of treating overdose. Their effects on pregnancy? Unknown. On psychiatric disorders? Unknown. Their long-term dangers or risk of addiction? Again, we have no information.

We do know from history that allowing drugs onto the market without strict regulation is a recipe for disaster. In 1938, for example, at least 100 Americans were killed by poison cough syrup containing diethylene glycol, an industrial solvent found in brake fluid and antifreeze. A similar event occurred in 2007 when unmonitored Chinese exportation of the same type of poisonous syrup killed about 400 children in Panama.

It was the 1938 incident that led to tough new drug regulations and to the authorization of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to regulate the contents of medications. The drug-monitoring system was strengthened again in 1962 to require more extensive testing of new medications, after the new drug thalidomide was discovered to have caused thousands of severely deformed babies to be born in Europe to mothers who had taken it during pregnancy. Thalidomide was not approved in the U.S. because a pharmacologist at the FDA called for more testing in the face of intense industry pressure for approval.

(MORE: Abuse-Proof OxyContin Pushes Addicts to Heroin and Other Opioids)

Previously unseen synthetic recreational drugs have already been known to cause great harm: in 1982, seven heroin users who took a byproduct of the incorrect manufacture of the synthetic opioid fentanyl developed severe movement difficulties. They were eventually diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. The byproduct drug was found to destroy the brain’s dopamine neurons, causing Parkinson’s, which progressively disables movement and can also cause dementia.

Clearly, the synthetic genie has long been out of the bottle and there’s no way to put it back in. Technology will only make the manufacturing of these substances easier. Further, the reality is that there has never been a human society that did not widely adopt the use of some type of intoxicant. Even animals seek out substances that alter consciousness (catnip, anyone?).

Given these facts, we may need to consider giving the FDA the authority to approve the least harmful recreational drugs. The best way to fight the market is with the market, even though that may mean making uncomfortable choices. Drug demand isn’t going away, so we can either increase the harm related to it by using criminal sanctions and incarceration, or we can try to reduce it with less dangerous alternatives like treatment, education and regulation.

Drug regulation is a solution that has worked before and it should at least be properly debated, especially if we want to approach our current drug problems as a health matter, not a criminal one. An obvious place to start would be to consider submitting marijuana to the FDA approval process. Or, we can continue to play whack-a-mole and hope that none of these new drugs triggers a public health disaster.

MORE: 10 Reasons to Revisit Marijuana Policy Now

Maia Szalavitz is a health writer for Find her on Twitter at @maiasz. You can also continue the discussion on TIME Healthland’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIMEHealthland.


Regulating recreational drugs might solve some problems, like avoiding contamination from poor manufacturing, but this approach will always be playing catch-up. In a market economy, there will always be people developing new drugs to achieve new highs while trying to skirt the law. As long as there's demand, there will be innovations in supply.

To get a handle on our drug problems, we need to focus on the demand side -- educating the general public, and especially kids and teenagers, about:  how drugs manipulate the brain and alter it; how addiction develops and who's at greatest risk for it; and providing treatment to the minority of users who become addicted.

Holistic, science-based drug education, focusing on the brain rather than on individual drugs, should start as early as possible to impart the message to kids that: their brains are precious resources; drug use can damage their brains' proper growth; and therefore, they should delay all drug use -- alcohol, pot, prescription painkillers, designer drugs, etc. --  until their brains  have matured, that is, until their early 20s. Statistics show that if kids do that, they're unlikely to develop addiction later in life.

That's why comprehensive education about the science of addiction is so important.

For a not-for-profit website that discusses the science of substance use and abuse in accessible English (how alcohol and drugs work in the brain; how addiction develops; why addiction is a chronic, progressive brain disease; what parts of the brain malfunction as a result of substance abuse; how that malfunction skews decision-making and motivation, resulting in addict behaviors; why some get addicted while others don't; how treatment works; how well treatment works; why relapse is common; what family and friends can do; etc.) please click on

Steve Castleman 

Regulating individual drugs also shifts the focus to individual drugs rather than on what all psychoactive drugs have in common


Not sure where all this GOD talk came from in this article, but I have noticed in the last several hundred to thousands of years that all religion has seemd to do is cause killing and more killing, I'm sick and tired of the fanatics in the religious sphere, spouting off things like, if you dont believe in my god then you are wrong and must be purged (killed or converted). Many may think me wrong in the way I'm beginning to think, but I have to admit the comments I have read latley are starting to make a believer out of me. Should all religion be banned? I wonder, as even christians have there radicals who only seem to want the same thing other radical relgions seem to want,( its my god or none).

No matter what or who you believe in, is up to the individual person, always has been always will be, ( even if it's in your closet).

So untill humans get over this ; I'm gona force you to believe this way or that way crap, the problems of this world will keep mounting untill the lid finaly blows of, and to tell you the truth I hope Im not around when it does blow off, cause it's gona be nasty.

While I'm at it, if you can go out and drink yourself silly night afer night and smoke cigerattes untill you can't breath, then if you want, you should be able to smoke pot if you want, I'm with many who say, make it legal, tax and regulate it if you must, BUT GET OVER IT, especially all you so called religious types out there, your all no better than the radical religious ...................



>> As nations and societies we need to turn back to God and find

>>  meaning in the author of life


Fortunately we are governed by a constitution that includes a set of amendments known as the "Bill of Rights". The very first of these amendments states (in part):


>> Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,

>> or prohibiting the free exercise thereof


Which means that, while you are welcome to believe in and follow the teachings of your god, you do not have the right to force this choice upon others. So... those of us in American society who have no interest in your god, have a right to pursue our own beliefs.

You follow your god and others will follow their various beliefs. This means that you are welcome to "turn back to God and find meaning in the author of life", but American government and society are required by law to allow those of us who have no interest in following your lead to pursue our own varied paths.

Tanea Paterson
Tanea Paterson

New Zealand's move---> Drug law reversing onus of proof on way

Cabinet has agreed key details of new psychoactive substances drug legislation that will require distributors and producers of party pills and other legal highs to prove they are safe before they can sell them, Associate Health Minister Peter Dunne announced today.

“As promised, we are reversing the onus of proof. If they cannot prove that a product is safe, then it is not going anywhere near the marketplace,” Mr Dunne said.

“The legislation will be introduced to Parliament later this year and be in force by around the middle of next year.

‘In the meantime, the Temporary Class Drug Notices – the holding measure we have successfully put in place – will be rolled over as required so there is no window of opportunity for any banned substances to come back on the market before the permanent law comes in,” he said.

“The new law means the game of ‘catch up’ with the legal highs industry will be over once and for all.

Jonathan Davidar
Jonathan Davidar

This is the beginning of the breakdown of society. Right now you don't have marijuana smokers in public places, at least not very visibly. Bad enough cigarettes, imagine a world where we inhale second hand smoke from marijuana. A very sad outlook for humanity. What about the next generation? If this is approved, it will be only a matter of time before something more deadly 'needs' to be approved to keep people happy and drug cartels out of business. We should not say yes to legalizing such drugs. As nations and societies we need to turn back to God and find meaning in the author of life. Are we so bored and unimaginative that we need to resort to drugs, legalize them, and then find new ways to destroy families? Decay always starts in small doses, literally.

David Fleischmann
David Fleischmann

 Slippery slope argument, and straw man argument.  You have no argument against legalizing cannabis itself, so you have to argue against all the other things which you assure us will follow, but which you can't prove.  In fact, countries that have decriminalized, like the Netherlands and Portugal, have had a drop in usage rates, as well as other harms like the spread of aids and murders associated with an illicit trade.  Cannabis does not destroy families or anyone, nor can you provide any evidence that it does.  If you would turn to God, then recognize that he put this plant on earth for a good reason, not by mistake.  I ask you to use your imagination a little more yourself and stop quoting propaganda from the drug warriors.



Check out the statistics this year for the rise in teen use of marijuana due to the medical marijuana explosion.  Just what we need is more impairment in the classroom and on our highways.  How about the view that what is better for the culture at large might might trump the individual pleasure of the individual.  This is how communities and cultures survive.

dawn orthen
dawn orthen


that shameless christian has no idea what happens when drugs are legalized/decriminalized.

ever hear of a tiny country caled portugal? theyve done away entirely with criminalization of drugs. and you wanna know something cool? nothing happened.

you shameless zealots tout a lack of god for everything bad.... let me ask you something;

your faith preaches love and forgiveness. not hatred and grudges. why is it then that zealots like you pander hatred of anything that you deem "wrong"? in the last thousand years people like you have caused countless wars, murdered millions of innocents, for what? an idea?

now you want to murder drugs - while thats a fine idea, it cannot be done. the best way to deal with drugs is to regulate them. america learned with prohibition that you CANNOT ban a drug.


heres an idea; why not legalize ALL drugs and regulate them harshly? make it so that drugs ( the production and sale) are handled by the government.

tax it.

sell it for high prices.

make SURE that when someone buys a drug they know exactly what the harmful effects are.

not only would that be profitable to a nation that spends several billion dollar yearly on " the war on drugs" but it would prdouce MASSIVE sums of money as well as get sleezy, very dangerous drug dealers off the streets.

you could even create small "plants" that employ drug makers to make drugs in sterile, high qaulity conditions. and have past drug dealers work the til.

it would eliminate the loss of job for both, and give them an integration into society.


And to which particular "God" are you referring to?? This is obviously a multiple choice question...


Why is it that we as a society legalize some drugs, like alcohol and nicotine, while criminalizing other drugs, like pot? It seems to me, that regulation would be a far more effective and consistent course of action. In contrast, the current "war on drugs" has been extremely expensive over the years and has accomplished little more than provide price supports for those drugs that our society has criminalized.

If we chose regulation over criminalization, drug prices would drop substantially which would reduce the profitability of the drug trade for cartels and other criminal organizations. It would also allow drug quality to be regulated which would reduce some of the hazards to users. Methanol poisoning spiked during prohibition, but was greatly reduced by regulation both before and after prohibition.


Malcolm Kyle
Malcolm Kyle


The CIA's role in the international drug trade, dating back to 1949, is not a theory but a well-documented "fact." The sources include former CIA and DEA agents.

"CIA are drug smugglers."—Federal Judge Bonner, while head of the DEA

In 1989, The Kerry Committee found that the United States Department of State had made payments to drug traffickers, concluding that members of the U.S. State Department themselves were involved in drug trafficking. Some of the payments were made even after the traffickers had been indicted by federal law enforcement agencies, or even while these traffickers were under active investigation by these same agencies.


* Shortly after World War II, the OSS (the predecessor of the CIA) formed a strategic alliance with the Sicilian and Corsican mafia. 

* During the 1950s, In order to provide covert funds for forces loyal to General Chiang Kai-Shek who were fighting the Chinese communists under Mao Zedong, the CIA helped the Kuomintang (KMT) smuggle opium from China and Burma to Thailand, by providing airplanes owned by one of their front businesses, Air America.

* During the long years of the cold war, the CIA mounted major covert guerilla operations along the Soviet-Chinese border. In 1950, for their operation against communist China in northeastern Burma, and from 1965 to 1975 [during the Vietnam war] for their operation in northern Laos, the CIA recruited as allies people we now call drug lords. 

* Throughout the 1980s, in Afghanistan, the CIA's supported the Mujahedin rebels (in their efforts against the pro-Soviet government) by facilitating their opium smuggling operations. Thus a small local trade in opium was turned into a major source of supply for the world markets including the United States. This lead ultimately to Afghanistan becoming the largest supplier of illicit opium on the planet, a status only briefly interrupted when it was under Taliban control.  

* Also during the 1980s, the Reagan administration funded a guerrilla force known as the Nicaraguan Contras—even after such funding was outlawed by Congress—by cocaine smuggling operations. An August 1996 series in the San Jose Mercury News (by Pulitzer Prize­–winner Gary Webb) clearly linked the origins of crack cocaine in California to the CIA and the Contras.

Follow this link to an electronic briefing book compiled from declassified documents obtained by the National Security Archive. It includes the notebooks kept by NSC aide and Iran-Contra figure Oliver North, electronic mail messages written by high-ranking Reagan administration officials, memos detailing the contra war effort and FBI and DEA reports. The documents demonstrate official knowledge of drug operations and collaboration with, and protection of, known drug traffickers. Court and hearing transcripts are also included.

* In November 1996, a Miami grand jury indicted former Venezuelan anti-narcotics chief and longtime-CIA asset General Ramon Guillen Davila, who was smuggling many tons of cocaine into the United States from a CIA owned Venezuelan warehouse. In his trial defense, Guillen claimed that all of his drug smuggling operations were approved by the CIA.

* The Dirección Federal de Seguridad was a Mexican intelligence agency created in 1947, and was in part a CIA creation. DFS badges were handed out to top-level Mexican drug traffickers and were a virtual license to traffic.' The Guadalajara Cartel (Mexico's most powerful drug-trafficking network in the early 1980s) prospered largely because it enjoyed the protection of the DFS, under its chief Miguel Nazar Haro, a CIA asset.

For far more detailed information kindly google any of the following: 

"The Big White Lie: The CIA and the Cocaine/Crack Epidemic" by former DEA agent Michael Levine

"Dark Alliance: The CIA, the Contras, and the Crack Cocaine Explosion" by Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Gary Webb

"Whiteout: The CIA, Drugs and the Press" by Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair

"The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade" by Alfred W. McCoy

"The Underground Empire: Where Crime and Governments Embrace" by James Mills

"Compromised: Clinton, Bush and the CIA" by Terry Reed, (a former Air Force Intelligence operative) and John Cummings (a former prize-winning investigative reporter at N.Y Newsday) 

Vikki Campos
Vikki Campos

i'm a firm believer that when you make something illegal, people will still get it. why do you think the drug industry is so big and dangerous? legalize it, regulate it, tax it, i bet you people will stop doing it.