Although “designer drugs” have been around for decades, newer formulations such as Spice, bath salts and Smiles have become a popular choice among teens and young adults. Designed to mimic the effects of illicit drugs, these drugs are manmade in secret labs and then sold online, at clubs and raves, and in head shops and convenience stores as “incense” or “plant food.” Because their chemical makeup is often unknown and their effects unpredictable, designer drugs can be extremely dangerous.
Following horrific reports of violent acts and a sharp increase in drug-related emergency department admissions and calls to poison control, at least 40 states and the federal government have banned a number of chemicals in designer drugs. The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) enacted an emergency ban on five chemicals in November 2010 and a broader ban, known as the Synthetic Drug Abuse Prevention Act of 2012, in July that covers 31 compounds commonly found in bath salts and synthetic marijuana.
Bans may appear to be effective in the short term. There were 6,100 calls to poison control about bath salts in 2011, compared to 1,700 in the first half of 2012, suggesting that numbers may be decreasing. More likely, people are turning to other chemical cocktails, or getting better at hiding their drug use. The most recent Monitoring the Future survey found that abuse of synthetic marijuana remained stable in 2012 at just over 11 percent among 12th graders.
While the federal ban may temporarily reduce emergencies related to some of the most common synthetic drugs currently available, even what some have called “sweeping” legislation can’t stem the tide for long. Here are five reasons a ban won’t be effective in the long run:
#1 Drug Makers Know the Laws – and How to Evade Them.
Drug makers are one step ahead of the laws. Just as certain drugs are banned, others are formulated to replace them. Although the most recent ban prohibits the manufacture and sale of analogs (substances that have similar effects as those that are banned), federal prosecutors must be able to show that they are intended for human use. Drug manufacturers take advantage of this loophole by labeling packets “not for human consumption.”
#2 The Possible Drug Combinations Are Endless.
The DEA banned 31 substances and their analogs, but there are hundreds of possible chemical cocktails that would be “different enough” to evade regulation. How many substances have to be listed before real progress can be made – 50, 100? Even if we could get bath salts or synthetic marijuana under control, a new twist on a familiar high will be close behind. Before the latest ban went into effect, law enforcement already reported a number of new drug formulations that would likely escape regulation.
It is extremely difficult to ban every known and soon-to-be-created designer drug. In fact, doing so could have unintended consequences. Among other concerns, outlawing broad categories of substances could limit scientists’ ability to determine their effects and to research them as treatments for medical conditions.
#3 There Is Money to Be Made.
Like any other drug market, there is a huge profit to be made in the manufacture and distribution of designer drugs. It’s a $5 billion business, according to the North American Herbal Incense Trade Association. The chemicals can be imported from China or India at low cost, concocted by following a few simple instructions and then sold for $15 to $20 per packet. Since the drugs are addictive, relatively cheap and readily available, high demand makes them a gold mine for some sellers.
#4 Enforcement Is a Nightmare.
To demonstrate its commitment to enforcing the ban, the DEA raided businesses in nearly 100 cities nationwide earlier this year. But ongoing enforcement will be no easy task. At a time when resources are already scarce, local law enforcement is struggling to define how its role intersects with the DEA’s and to take action when much of its time is spent waiting for lab results to come back to determine whether the substance in question falls under the ban. As designer drugs become harder to buy in local stores, more users are turning to the Internet, where sales are even more difficult to monitor and prosecute.
#5 Demand Is High.
As we have seen repeatedly throughout history, criminalizing drug use doesn’t stop demand. Because a ban does nothing to address the reasons people use drugs in the first place, it won’t stop people from turning to drugs to cope with their problems or finding new ways to get high. Instead, we will continue to see prisons overcrowding and laws pushing drug use underground.
Regulating the Unregulatable?
Although insufficient by itself to combat the rise in designer drug abuse, the federal ban does send an important message: Synthetic drugs are dangerous and require action that is coordinated on local, state and national levels. But until we treat addiction as a disease and address the underlying reasons for the growing demand, no ban – no matter how broad or how diligently enforced – will solve the synthetic drug problem.