In December, we reported on the DEA’s ban on five chemicals used to make synthetic marijuana, more commonly known as “spice.” Since then, more than 20 states have independently outlawed synthetic cannabinoid chemicals or moved to take them off the shelves. But synthetic marijuana is still readily available — its manufacturers staying a step ahead of the law through the development of new formulas mere molecules apart from the illegal ones.
Now there is a new synthetic doppelganger growing in popularity: “synthetic cocaine” sold under the guise of bath salts. (If you haven’t heard of it, watch this Today Show story). The effects of this new designer drug, made with chemicals like methylenedioxypyrovalerone, have been compared in the media to those of cocaine, MDMA, and even LSD. Whatever the high may be, the American Poison Control Center says bath salts have resulted in 1,511 trips to the emergency room this year. And the horror stories in the media connected to the chemical are mounting: Last month a 22-year-old Rutgers University student was allegedly beaten to death by her bath-salt-snorting boyfriend. Weeks earlier, authorities in Kentucky said a young woman driving on a highway after using bath salts became convinced her 2-year-old was a demon. She allegedly pulled over, dropped the child on his head, and walked away carrying her 5-year-old. In January, Neil Brown of Fulton, Missouri, slit his face and stomach with a hunting knife after allegedly taking bath salts.
Despite the stories about the dangers of synthetic cannabis and cocaine and the attempts to outlaw some of them, these drug imposters aren’t difficult to find, as I discovered after just five minutes of telephone calls to smoke shops in my area. I called a dozen smoke shops in the Phoenix area asking if they carried bath salts and spice, which banned the primary spice chemicals earlier this year. Only one shop said no, and the clerk referred me to another shop; another said yes and corrected me. “Um, herbal incense, you mean,” the guy on the phone said.
Another synthetic drug called 2C-E, has been garnering attention after a mass overdose at a party in Minnesota that led to one death. On March 16, 19-year-old Trevor Robinson died in Minneapolis after overdosing at the party; ten others at the party went to the emergency room after using the chemical. Reportedly similar to LSD and psychedelic mushrooms, 2C-E is a synthetic hallucinogen developed more than 30 years ago by DEA licensed psychopharmacologist, Alexander Shulgin. Like other designer drugs when they first hit the market, 2C-E is not a controlled substance in the U.S. and, like the others, synthetics with similar chemical structures are also legal and available online. Minnesota legislators are weighing a ban on the chemical.
So why the sudden shift to designer drugs? Are harsh penalties nudging thousands to try “legal” alternatives? Are we just bored of getting high au naturel? According to a report from the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime last year, global drug use is shifting towards synthetic drugs as demand for coke and heroin declines in developed countries and rises in the developing world. This is in large part due to Obama’s Afghan counterinsurgency strategy, coca eradication efforts in Colombia, and a fungus outbreak affecting the source of 89 percent of the world’s opium. Read more here.
The chemical synthetics may be more dangerous than the illicit drugs they replicate — especially in the case of chemical-drenched spice over naturally-grown marijuana. But is banning these chemicals the answer? The Drug Policy Alliance, which advocates legalizing marijuana and ending the drug war, says banning “spice” and other synthetic drugs just creates an illegal market for those chemicals as well. ”When policymakers outlaw a drug, they give up all control over it,” Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance, told USA Today. “Instead of handing Spice and other drugs over to organized crime to make and distribute, it would be better to regulate the drugs to prohibit young people from getting access.”
What do you think?
-David Robles with AJC