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.”
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.
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.