Synthetic drugs: creativity that kills

Wanna buy some drugs? How about some drugz?

Years ago, law enforcement had to worry about a handful of illegal intoxicants, primarily marijuana, cocaine, heroin and a few natural and chemical hallucinogens. There were also pills, diverted from the pharmacy or cooked in a kitchen.

But, for the most part, the composition of the various intoxicants was settled and well known by law enforcement and by regulators if not by users.

Today, the drug universe is as broad as the human imagination.

Chemicals identified by unpronounceable names are sprayed on leaves and twigs or packaged in foil envelopes and sold in convenience stores and head shops across America. Some are peddled as incense, others as bath salts to circumvent existing prohibitions.

No amount of packaging, however, can conceal that the stuff is designed to get people high.

For years, lawmakers have tried to target these so-called “synthetic” drugs. But as soon as they identify one chemical compound and ban it, an illicit drugmaker rearranges a few atoms, and the result is legal again.

This new game of regulatory cat and mouse is different not just because law enforcement can’t keep up. The drugs themselves, whether by design or because of sloppy manufacture, have wildly unpredictable effects on the human body.

Some have caused heart attacks. Others, psychosis. Still others have led to Parkinsonian-like tremors and brain damage. Users have stayed awake for days, desperate for some way to come down. It’s getting worse.

In 2010, there were 3,200 calls to poison centers about synthetic marijuana and bath salts, according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers. In 2011, there were more than 13,000.

This month, the president signed a bill that added another few dozen compounds to the list of banned chemicals. It was one more step in a broader effort that, like the drug war itself, simply isn’t working because it can’t keep up.

In Portsmouth earlier this year, three men pleaded guilty to importing a controlled substance – methylone – that was legal until last October. The drugs came from China and were procured via email. Now it’s in the same category as heroin.

These synthetic drugs are that dangerous. They represent that serious a threat to the lives of Americans. And by now, drugmakers have already created a replacement.

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