In New Drug War, Regulators Face ‘Hydra-headed’ Threat

In May 2012 Florida police found a man crouched low over a homeless man, eating the flesh from his face. The man was believed to be high on a synthetic drug called “bath salts,” which at the time could be purchased at local gas stations.

The incident began a crucial discussion among lawmakers about the rise of new drugs. Not long after, President Barack Obama signed a law to ban bath salts, a form of synthetic cocaine, and several key chemicals used to create synthetic marijuana. Yet, after public uproar about the “zombie drug” died down, the drugs did not.

“When Congress outlawed several of these synthetic drugs last year, traffickers did not stop producing them,” said Senator Dianne Feinstein during a Senate hearing on Sept. 25. “Instead, they slightly altered the chemical structure of illegal drugs to skirt the law.”

Synthetic drugs bring the drug war into the artificial age.

Chemists model the molecular structures of synthetic drugs after those of natural drugs, or other well-known substances like LSD or ecstasy. When regulators try clamping down, the chemists simply alter the chemical structures, which creates an ongoing flow of new and legal drugs with unknown effects.

Any thorough regulation on synthetic drugs will need to be broad and able to constantly adapt.

The question of how to regulate the new drugs was on the table during the recent hearing of United States Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control, of which Feinstein is chairman.

Feinstein introduced a bill in July, the Protecting Our Youth from Dangerous Synthetic Drugs Act of 2013, which may just have an answer.

The bill would update the Controlled Substance Act to include substances that have similar chemical structures and effects to illegal drugs. It would create a Controlled Substance Analogue Committee that would be able to keep up with regulating new synthetic drugs.

New Zealand is trying another approach. A law enacted in July will allow synthetic drugs to be sold legally if they pass rigorous safety tests. Regulations would focus on, for instance, not driving under the influence. The U.K. and Australia are watching the initiative with interest.

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