The highs of tomorrow: why new laws and policies are needed to meet the unique challenges of synthetic drugs.

Author:Cohen, Joseph A.
 
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  1. INTRODUCTION II. BACKGROUND A. Synthetic Cannabinoids B. Synthetic Cathinones C. Other Synthetic Drugs D. The Rise and Adulteration of "Molly" III. A SENSE OF URGENCY IS NEEDED IV. A SYSTEM OF INSUFFICIENT FEDERAL STATUTORY REGULATION V. RECOMMENDATION ONE: CONGRESS SHOULD GRANT THE DEA A NEW, "IMMEDIATE SCHEDULING" AUTHORITY VI. RECOMMENDATION TWO: THE DEA SHOULD IMPROVE INFORMATION SHARING WITH STATES VII. RECOMMENDATION THREE: THE DEPARTMENT OF STATE AND THE DEA SHOULD PRIORITIZE THE DEVELOPMENT OF A GLOBAL EARLY WARNING SYSTEM VIII. CONCLUSION I. INTRODUCTION

    Synthetic drugs, as opposed to naturally occurring drugs (e.g. cocaine and opium), are man-made chemical substances that are manufactured in laboratories and are designed to mimic the molecular structures and effects of controlled substances. (1) Traditional synthetic drugs, such as methamphetamine and ecstasy (MDMA or 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine), were made by clandestine chemists and introduced into the United States via the black market. (2) In 2008, law enforcement in America began to encounter a new generation of synthetic drugs that were marketed as "legal" alternatives to illicit drugs such as marijuana, cocaine, and heroin. (3) Under the law, specifically the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), the legality of these substances is in a state of ambiguity due to an outdated Controlled Substances Analogue Enforcement Act (Analogue Act) and an overly restrictive Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) temporary scheduling authority. (4)

    This new generation of synthetic drugs is made up of two primary categories of substances: (1) synthetic cannabinoids (commonly referred to as "synthetic marijuana," "Spice," or "K2") and (2) synthetic cathinones (commonly referred to as "bath salts"). (5) Other substances that fall into this new generation of synthetic drugs include phenethylamines (e.g. the 2C compound series), piperazines, tryptamines, and arylcyclohexamines. (6)

    Instead of being sold on street corners and back alleys like the illicit drugs they purport to mimic, this new generation of synthetic drugs is sold openly in small retail locations such as gas stations, convenience stores, and the Internet. (7) Young people, who are a primary target consumer for synthetic drugs, are especially vulnerable to the mistaken belief that these substances are safe because they are marketed as legal. (8) In addition, the seemingly infinite number of different chemical compositions of these drugs and the speed in which new varieties appear on the market has caused significant challenges to government control efforts, including state governments, which are unable to keep pace with the quickly changing product supply. (9) Internationally, countries in all regions of the world face similar challenges and have experienced a proliferation of synthetic drugs in recent years. (10)

    Urgent action is needed to control synthetic drugs before they take root in the U.S. drug market. The potential public health consequences of synthetic drugs are cause for significant concern due to widespread availability of these drugs and the violent and unpredictable behavior they can cause in users. (11) Also, violent drug trafficking organizations are likely to enter the synthetic drugs business, if they have not already done so, due to the existence of a market worth billions of dollars. (12) In addition, terrorist organizations in the Middle East have begun to use synthetic drug sales in the U.S. as quick and easy financing opportunities. (13)

    This article reviews the federal government's attempts to control the influx of synthetic drugs, particularly synthetic cannabinoids and cathinones, into the U.S. recreational drug market since 2008. It offers three recommendations targeted at Congress, the DEA, and the Department of State on ways to prevent and control synthetic drug use in America: (1) Congress should grant the DEA a new "immediate scheduling" authority; (2) the DEA should improve information sharing with states; and (3) the Department of State and the DEA should prioritize the development of a global early warning system.

  2. BACKGROUND

    In 2009, the DEA's national forensics database contained fifteen synthetic cannabinoid reports related to two different substances and thirty-four synthetic cathinone reports related to four different substances. (14) By 2012, the number of synthetic cannabinoid reports exceeded 41,200 and related to fifty-six different substances, and the database contained 14,100 synthetic cathinone reports related to thirty-one different substances. (15) In addition, seventy-six other synthetic substances were identified in 2012, (16) bringing the total number of synthetic substances identified to well over 150 in that year alone. (17) Due to the volume and speed in which synthetic drugs appear on the market, federal, state, and local governments have found it difficult to keep pace. (18) The attempt to stop the cycle of a new substance emerging, being banned, and immediately having another new substance take its place has been likened to a "whack-a-mole game." (19) Halting this cycle is made even more challenging by the existence of multiple compound classes of synthetic drugs, each with its own unique characteristics. (20)

    1. Synthetic Cannabinoids

      Synthetic cannabinoids are man-made chemicals that are manufactured and marketed to mimic the effects of THC (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol), the primary psychoactive ingredient in marijuana. (21) Synthetic cannabinoids are generally sprayed onto dried plant material and then consumed through smoking or oral ingestion. (22) In November 2008, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) became the first federal law enforcement agency to encounter synthetic cannabinoid products in the United States. (23) Most synthetic cannabinoid chemicals are manufactured in Asia, primarily China, by chemists who ignore quality control standards and are shipped to the U.S. under misbranded imports, where local distributors apply the drug to plant material. (24) The final product is sold in individual packets in small retail outlets, such as gas stations and convenient stores, as well as on the Internet, under hundreds of different brand names such as "Spice," "K2," and "Black Magic." (25) The average price for 2.5 grams of synthetic cannabinoid product is approximately $30. (26)

      Synthetic cannabinoid products are often marketed as "herbal incense" to hide their true purpose. (27) In addition, their packaging usually carries the phrase "not for human consumption" in an attempt to frustrate the application of the Analogue Act, which states that controlled substance analogues shall, "to the extent intended for human consumption," be treated as a controlled substance in Schedule I, (28) the most restrictive of the five schedules in the CSA. (29)

      Young people are the primary users of synthetic cannabinoids. (30) According to the 2013 Monitoring the Future survey of youth drug-use trends, about eight percent of twelfth graders in America reported using synthetic cannabinoids in the past year. (31) This rate puts synthetic cannabinoids as the third most frequently used drug among high school seniors after marijuana and amphetamines. (32) Many young people have tried synthetic cannabinoids and suffered adverse health consequences believing that, because these products can be bought in a store or are marketed online as being legal, they must be safe. (33)

      In reality, use of synthetic cannabinoids can be extremely harmful. Clemson University Professor John W. Huffman, credited with synthesis of some of the first cannabinoids such as JWH-018, was quoted as saying "these things are dangerous--anybody who uses them is playing Russian roulette." (34) The contents and effects of synthetic cannabinoids have profound psychological effects. (35) They are also unpredictable due to a constantly changing variety of chemicals used in manufacturing processes devoid of quality controls and government regulatory oversight. (36)

    2. Synthetic Cathinones

      A number of synthetic cathinone products are central nervous system stimulants. (37) They attempt to mimic the effects of traditional stimulants such as amphetamine, ecstasy, and cocaine. (38) Common compounds found in synthetic cathinones include methcathinone, methylone (3,4-methylenedioxy-Nmethylcathinone), and 4-MEC (4-methyl-N-ethylcathinone). (39) Unlike methamphetamine, ecstasy, and cocaine, these substances are marketed as legal alternatives to banned drugs. (40) They are sold under the guise of products such as "bath salts" and "plant food" and, similar to synthetic cannabinoids, are labeled "not for human consumption" in an attempt to avoid application of the Analogue Act. (41)

      Most synthetic cathinones are made in bulk in Asia, primarily China, and shipped to distributors in the United States. (42) Similar to synthetic cannabinoids, synthetic cathinones are sold at small retail locations such as gas stations and online under brand names such as "Ivory Wave," "Vanilla Sky," and "Energy-1." (43) Powder and crystal forms of synthetic cathinones are sold for $20 to $50 for approximately 500 milligrams and are snorted, smoked, or injected by users. (44)

    3. Other Synthetic Drugs

      Other substances associated with this new generation of synthetic drugs include phenethylamines, piperazines, tryptamines, and arylcyclohexamines. (45) The 2C compound series, a category of phenethylamines, have become popular hallucinogenic drugs. (46) These substances are often promoted as legal alternatives to LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide). (47) Unlike synthetic cannabinoids and cathinones, these substances are often sold on blotter paper or in dropper bottles. (48) They are also not found in retail environments and are instead sold primarily online for between five dollars and ten dollars per dosage. (49) An especially strong variety of the 2C series, 25I-NBOMe, was linked to at least fourteen deaths in a...

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