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Why are synthetic drugs so hard to legislate?

Photo: pau.artigas via Flickr

Designer drugs, synthetics and bath salts are at the center of a new battle over illicit drug sales and use across the United States.

Recent legislation signed by President Obama designating approximately 30 designer drugs as Schedule I substances is a great start in building a bigger tool chest by which law enforcement can begin to tackle this nebulous problem.  In Minnesota, our own state government’s effort to make the sale of synthetic drugs a felony is also a positive step in the right direction.

But why are synthetic drugs so hard to legislate?  Why do we need new legislation to stop these drugs? How come current drug laws aren’t enough?

The answer comes in how these drugs are created.

Designer drugs, synthetics and bath salts are terms that actually represent three classes of drug-like compounds that all have roots in experimental pharmacology and natural product chemistry.

Let’s start with bath salts.

Although the term “bath salts” often refers to any and all illicit compounds sold via the Internet or retail outlets selling drug paraphernalia (also known as “head shops”), bath salts actually rely on modified cathinones, naturally-occurring chemical compounds which produce pharmacological effects similar to that of amphetamines.

Cathinones are known substances of abuse.  In fact, there are hundreds of cathinones reported in the literature, several of which have been listed as Schedule I controlled substances for years.  The problem is that not all cathinones with abuse potential are scheduled by the DEA, a loop-hole that can be exploited by the illicit drug trade to produce very potent and addictive products that can be “legally” sold as plant food or bath salts – or just about anything that does not involve human consumption.

Many people believe that the producers of these compounds have brilliant chemists working night and day to come up with new chemical structures that will always keep the illicit trade one step ahead of the law, but that’s absolutely not the case.  Almost all the compounds we find in the synthetic drugs and bath salts turning up on dealer shelves are known from prior work in experimental laboratories.

The drugs are essentially failed laboratory drugs that have no public benefit.

In addition to legal loopholes, the nature of cathinones themselves creates significant challenges for law enforcement. The synthesis and chemical modification of these compounds can be quite simple given the right starting materials.

While it certainly could be argued that all these compounds are simple analogs of those listed on Schedule I – and they definitely are – prosecution under the Federal Analog Act can be challenging for a couple reasons.

First, dealers and developers will simply contend that the product isn’t intended for human consumption. Second, dealers argue that the compound contained isn’t an analog at all, but a new entity.

Synthetics create a similar problem.

Synthetic drugs are clearly sold for recreational use; they create a psychedelic experience or “trip” when ingested.  These compounds are all synthetically derived from neurotransmitters that short-circuit the serotonin-signaling pathway in the brain.

The use of these drugs can be extremely dangerous with high, varying toxicity levels and a high probability of overdose, but because sales often occur over the Internet, our ability to curb sales and prosecute offenders is held at bay.

While the synthesis of these compounds is quite simple, fortunately they require precursors that are highly regulated in the U.S.

Other synthetics are designed to trigger the same receptor as THC, the active constituent of marijuana.  These drugs are taken from abandoned research projects that examined the potential benefits of cannabinoids and are more complex to synthesize.

But once created, these types of synthetics are sold both online and over the counter at specialty shops as “legal” marijuana disguised as incense.  They’ve gained popularity because users are able to pass mandatory drug screening tests required by employers as well as law enforcement as a requirement of probation.

The good news here is that the chemistry and pharmacology of these drugs is complex, limiting the producer’s ability to outpace law enforcement and scheduling of new analogs.

What’s Next?

The challenge of staying ahead of the wave of new analogs will continue, but with increased awareness and stronger laws that allow suspect substances to be quickly scheduled or banned, the battle will ultimately be won.

A bigger issue yet to be handled is the problem of Internet sales and imports.  Given evidence that places the manufacture of these compounds overseas, and the ease at which Internet storefronts can be established and managed, the lines in the battlefield may have to be shifted.

At the College of Pharmacy, we work to help guide policies and legislation that will help in the fight against synthetic drugs, bath salts and designer drugs.  Our hope is that with more information, awareness climbs and people realize just how dangerous these products are.

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