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Setting the Record Straight on 'Synthetic Drugs' -- and What We Should Do About Them

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 5/11/2015 Patrick Heintz
SYNTHETIC DRUGS © Spencer Platt via Getty Images SYNTHETIC DRUGS

"Synthetic drugs" have been causing panic lately; many are new to the drug market, haven't been researched, and they're easily mistaken for and sold as somewhat similar drugs. While alarmist media stories have focused on their reported dangers, what often goes unaddressed is that our existing pattern of banning drugs drives the creation of these new substances. The Drug Policy Alliance and Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, organizations that both work toward ending the War on Drugs, would like to clear up some of the confusion caused by these chemicals and advocate for researching, (re-) legalizing, and regulating them.

One of the biggest challenges is simply accurately describing what substances are being used. The media has been reporting on the dangers of "synthetic drugs" which is an incorrect and misleading term because it describes every man-made drug, whether it be a prescription, legal or illegal. When discussing "synthetic drugs," the correct way to refer to them are as "new psychoactive substances" or "NPS" or "research chemicals." Similarly, K2 and Spice, brand names for drugs blamed for clusters of deaths and medical emergencies in the past few years, are often called "synthetic marijuana." This is misleading because the drugs in question are actually replacement or synthetic cannabinoids, a class of compounds present in marijuana, other plant species, and even human breast milk. Referring to these chemicals as "synthetic marijuana" is only misleading people (especially young people) into thinking that K2 and Spice have the same physiological effects as marijuana.

The impact of this misinformation is palpable. From January to May of 2015, 15 people died from synthetic cannabinoid overdoses in the U.S., a three-fold increase from last year. Replacement psychedelic 25i-NBOMe and its chemical relatives (colloquially, "n-bombs") caused 19 American overdose deaths between March 2012 and August 2013. People often pick up a new substance expecting it to have effects and a risk profile similar to the drug it's meant to imitate, but this is rarely the case.

Rather than focus on public education or warnings, the typical knee-jerk reaction to deaths is to ban these drugs. For example, the NBOMe class of drugs, among others, were placed on an emergency scheduling list by the DEA in November 2013. While bans may - or may not - slow the use of a particular new substance, this method of attempting to eradicate drug use is like the story of the mythical Hydra - when one head is severed, many more grow back in its place. This is the same failed response to every mood-altering drug we have been trotting out for over 40 yrs. Banning "classics" like LSD, MDMA, marijuana, and other drugs is exactly what has spurred the creation of the "new" drugs now banned, and their prohibition will only cycle the process forward, as producers move to meet demand and evade the law.

Even psychoactive drugs long known to some cultures as medicine are getting caught up in this frenzy to ban. Kratom, a Southeast Asian plant and member of the coffee family, has been under misguided scrutiny after mixed user testimonials. The herb has been used for hundreds of years, mostly in Central and South Thailand, by day laborers who wanted pain relief without the dangerous and addictive consequences of opiates. Kratom has incorrectly and hysterically been lumped into the category of NPS and banned in Wisconsin, Indiana, Vermont, and Tennessee. Similar prohibition legislation has been introduced in three other states. The DEA recently put Kratom on their "drugs of concern" list, a preemptive action to the federal scheduling ban. Banning the herb, which many use medicinally, is not only making naturopathic healthcare options less accessible to people trying to avoid addictive pharmaceutical drugs and law-breaking, but it's also ignoring totally sensible alternatives to dealing with a so-called "new" substance. It would make far more sense to study Kratom, and other mysterious substances in a scientific setting and implement a system of regulation to ensure consumer safety.

We actually need to know a lot more about all NPS, especially those like synthetic cannabinoids and 25i-nBOMe that have been associated with deaths and ill effects. A small number of people use these substances intentionally, but an even greater number may be using them unintentionally, believing they are the actual substances they are purported to be replacing. Because many people don't know to test their substances, use rates for NPS may be far higher than what's knowingly reported. More research is needed to truly understand the effects and risks of each substance, but that's nearly impossibly once they are banned.

Emergency scheduling by the DEA isn't fixing any of the above problems -- it's actually making the situation worse. We need to research these substances more fully, permit more extensive harm reduction services, and provide better treatment options. Ultimately, these substances should be required to pass health and safety standards, and if they can, should be legalized (again, in some cases) and regulated.

This sea change in how we address drug use will take time to fully bring about, so for now, please take note of the appropriate terms, encourage the people you know who use drugs to educate themselves about what they take (or may accidentally take), and help us be part of the solution.

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