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How Chemistry Stymies Attempts To Regulate Synthetic Drugs 364

Hugh Pickens writes "Brandon Keim reports that the war on drugs has a new front, with chemists fabricating synthetic mimics of marijuana, dissociative drugs and stimulants. So far lawmakers appear to be a losing the war, as every time a new compound is banned, overseas chemists synthesize a new version tweaked just enough to evade the letter of the law in a giant game of chemical Whack-a-Mole. 'Manufacturers turn these things around so quickly. One week you'll have a product with compound X, the next week it's compound Y,' says forensic toxicologist Kevin Shanks. 'It's fascinating how fast it can occur, and it's fascinating to see the minute changes in chemical structure they'll come up with. It's similar, but it's different.' During the last several years, the market for legal highs has exploded in North America and Europe. While people raised on Reefer Madness-style exaggerations may be wary of claims that 'legal high' drugs are dangerous, researchers say they're far more potent than the originals. Reports of psychotic episodes following synthetic drug use are common and have led to a variety of laws, but so far the bans aren't working, as the drugs can be subtly tweaked so as to possess a different, legal molecular form. One obvious alternative approach is to ban entire classes of similar compounds; however this is easier said than done. 'The problem with that is, what does "chemically similar" really mean? Change the structure in a small way — move a molecule here, move something to the other side of the molecule — and while I might think it's an analogue, another chemist might disagree,' says Shanks. 'That's the crux of the entire problem. The scientific community does not agree on what "analogue" essentially means.""
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How Chemistry Stymies Attempts To Regulate Synthetic Drugs

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  • Whitelist (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday June 03, 2012 @09:42AM (#40200613)

    Blacklisting is always going to be running behind the curve. I think whitelisting allowed recreational mood/thought-altering substances (currently: ethanol, nicotine, caffeine, sugar, fat, others?) might work better. Simply make it illegal to sell or distribute new substances to the general public without permission from the FDA.

  • by geoskd ( 321194 ) on Sunday June 03, 2012 @09:51AM (#40200677)

    Make it illegal to sell drugs without declaring the exact compounds and forbid driving or operating dangerous machinery under the influence of any drug.

    What about Prozac? What about caffeine, or sugar for that matter. These are all psychoactive chemicals, and quantifying the difference between them and ... say cocaine... is extremely subjective.


  • by AngryDeuce ( 2205124 ) on Sunday June 03, 2012 @10:02AM (#40200735)

    All one has to do is look at the US drug schedules [wikipedia.org] to realize that they have no realistic basis.

    I mean, THC is ranked as having a higher abuse potential and danger than cocaine. Psilocybin is ranked higher than amphetamines. Peyote is ranked higher than opiates.

    I'm sure it's just coincidental that all the intoxicating substances that grow wild with little human intervention, that have been used spiritually and medicinally for tens of thousands of years, are rated as being "more dangerous" than the opiates that make up the bulk of the pharmaceuticals in use around the world today. It's not like the companies selling the legal recreational drugs like alcohol and tobacco are putting money into keeping these things scheduled in this unrealistic way or anything. [wikipedia.org] Oh, wait...

  • by NCatron ( 103418 ) on Sunday June 03, 2012 @10:32AM (#40200895)

    Working in drug discovery, I'm still amazed at how often a small change of sometimes even a single atom of a molecule can take an pharmacologically active molecule and make it near-worthless - or even worse take a (relatively) safe molecule and turn it unacceptably toxic. I'd stay FAR away from any "analogue" being created with the sole purpose of rounding a ban without having any sort of safety and probably minimal efficacy testing.

    I'd say this kind of story gives even stronger evidence for why illicit drugs (the less-toxic at least) should be legalized & controlled - if this article is not overly sensational and there really is an escalating war of chemistry we could get into some pretty nasty stuff being marketed to consumers who do not know any better.

  • by couchslug ( 175151 ) on Sunday June 03, 2012 @10:41AM (#40200949)

    ...religion hates spiritual experience and even simple pleasure it doesn't ration.

    Note the level of Bible Thumper influence which not only drove Prohibition, but anti-"narcotics" (cannabis is not one) laws in the same era.

    Taliban must control sex and control other pleasures, and to accomplish that goal must define disobedience as "sin" then punish it.

    The cost of WOSD is spectacular, and it fuels the wave of immigration from the narco-states it creates (though the Christian Taliban are completely incapable of connecting the disruption of civil society with flight to the US!).

  • Re:Legalize it all. (Score:5, Interesting)

    by 0100010001010011 ( 652467 ) on Sunday June 03, 2012 @10:47AM (#40200973)

    And spend the money on rehab and not punishment. Look at Portugal as an example. And keeping drugs illegal is costing tax payers a TON of money. My GF works in the ER. She's had a patient in and out with sepsis and other serious infections that he got from a needle. Give or take they estimate that the it's cost the hospital "$1M" (in hospital money). Between sedation, partial amputation of a limb, etc. It would have cost the government pennies for a clean needle and some clean, medical grade heroin. And then force him into a treatment program instead of locking him up and making me pay for it.

  • by Bert64 ( 520050 ) <bert@slashdot. f i r e n z e e.com> on Sunday June 03, 2012 @10:51AM (#40201001) Homepage

    Not necessarily...
    The black market drugs would need to be significantly cheaper than the over the counter stuff, or it simply wouldn't be worth the risk (of police, of poor quality product, of being ripped off by an unregulated seller etc) for the purchaser... And if the profit margins are slim enough it wouldn't be worth it for the seller.

    With legal production, you have efficiencies through economies of scale as well as savings through being able to ship via official channels and not needing to smuggle etc, so you could easily undercut the black market on price and still turn a tidy profit.

    Legalizing drugs would destroy the business of those in the illegal drug trade over night, save the police millions and allow the government keep track of who is buying what drugs.

  • Re:Legalize it all. (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday June 03, 2012 @10:53AM (#40201013)

    So I tried THC for the first time in my life last week a few weeks leading up to my 30th. (To go along with my "Try everything once" mantra since I was raised a very picky eater having never tried some vegetables before 25).

    I have asthma so can't smoke, but I found some interesting recipes online. Ended up making gee and then using that in a ton of stuff. Toast, brownies, cookies, spaghetti, etc.

    Holy fark have I (we) been lied to. Jesus Christ, that's illegal? I want to go back and cock punch every single cop and DARE presenter I ever had. Alcohol has much more serious side effects than that. I had way too much my first time not knowing the limits and I didn't black out or go try to pick fights (as too much Jim and Jack tend to do). I just felt like I was getting heavier and sinking into the couch. It was the worst parts of being drunk (uncoordinated, couldn't talk right, blurry vision) without the blackout to forget it. Subsequent dosages were much better. (And I re-watched the Avengers a 2nd time and that was interesting to say the least).

    I already believed that everything should be decriminalized/legalized (Like how Portugal does it) and that was just because of my observations on society. There is absofarkinglutely no reason pot should be illegal let alone a schedule 1.

    The WORST possible side effect is that we all turn into the British and queue for everything. If you've seen the episode of How I Met Your Mother where they get in line and time feels like it's gone by for ever, that's pretty much it.

    Oh, and it took away (or at least made me ignore) my chronic knee pain. I mean. If you have the means to try it and haven't and you already don't see a problem with alcohol, my suggestion is try it. You will be equally as "WTF".

    Anonymous because.

  • by betterunixthanunix ( 980855 ) on Sunday June 03, 2012 @10:55AM (#40201021)

    ...religion hates spiritual experience and even simple pleasure it doesn't ration.

    Thus explaining why Jews are required to drink wine every week and are required to drink four glasses (definitely enough for almost anyone to at least get a buzz) on Passover. You also forgot about the numerous religions that use psychedelic mushrooms as part of their ceremonies. Religion is not the problem here.

    If you want to know why we have a war on drugs, I can think of the following more plausible explanations:

    1. Racism. Congressmen were told that black men who used cocaine would becoming unstoppable monsters, that Philipino immigrants would bring their horrible opium habits with them, that white women who smoked marijuana would want to have sex with black men, that crack makes black people crazy, that PCP makes black people crazy, etc.
    2. Police militarization. The war on drugs is a great excuse to give police officers assault rifles, body armor, and even military tanks and helicopters (see: 1033 program). The police can also use the proceeds from seized assets from drug arrests in their own budgets.
    3. Expanding executive branch power. The Controlled Substances Act allows the attorney general's office to simply declare drugs to be illegal, without any democratic process.
    4. Corporate profits. Alcohol, tobacco, caffeine, pharmaceutical companies, firearms companies, prison operators, companies that make surveillance equipment, petrochemical companies, and numerous others have all seen expanded profits because of the war on drugs.

    Religion is really a minor issue here. There are a few priests who will pound on their pulpits about the evils of drugs, but their power in the drug war is limited at best.

  • by durdur ( 252098 ) on Sunday June 03, 2012 @11:04AM (#40201073)

    If someone discovered a new biologically harmless but mind-altering drug, it would be made illegal, too. They are banning these things not only, or even primarily, because they are dangerous, but because they get you high.

  • Re:Legalize it all. (Score:5, Interesting)

    by TheRealMindChild ( 743925 ) on Sunday June 03, 2012 @11:14AM (#40201147) Homepage Journal
    The "blizzard" bath salts are not like anything that can be described. I have never taken the stuff myself, however, being in the psych ward over many occasions, these bath salts are the purpose of MORE THAN HALF of the people there.

    The situation comes from people using this stuff like cocaine. The first initial buzz is very much like cocaine. But unlike cocaine, you don't do a line every 5 or 10 minutes, because the bath salts have a half-life of possibly from 8 hours to DAYS. After enough consumption, you WILL have a psychotic episode ranging anywhere from schizo tendencies to what you can classically attribute to PCP.

    The doctor, Amy Metzger, who is usually the doctor on said psych ward has written a paper about its effects http://altoonaregional.org/news_archived2011.htm#06-03-11d [altoonaregional.org]
  • Re:Legalize it all. (Score:5, Interesting)

    by jittles ( 1613415 ) on Sunday June 03, 2012 @11:14AM (#40201151)

    I have never seen a crazed methamphetamine user (I am sure they exist, I have just never seen one), but I have seen a house burn to the ground after the byproducts of methamphetamine production caught fire.

    I had a roommate in college who used to be a very heavy meth user. He quit because he started becoming very paranoid and was beginning to hallucinate. It got to the point where he literally thought everyone was out to kill him, and he was afraid that he was going to have to start killing people to save his life. I'm not sure how he realized it was the drugs, or how he managed to stop, but I would be very willing to bet that he was quite dangerous during that time.

  • Re:Legalize it all. (Score:5, Interesting)

    by betterunixthanunix ( 980855 ) on Sunday June 03, 2012 @11:29AM (#40201231)
    So your point is what...that someone who noticed that his life was becoming terrifying as a result of his drug use was able to stop using that drug? Your roommate did not kill anyone, and he certainly did not create a hazard waste site on the side of a busy highway.

    Sure, methamphetamine can create paranoid delusions in its users. Do the people who sell it for recreational use take the time to explain that to their customers? If you could buy methamphetamine legally, you could be given a warning about the danger of using it -- just like we warn people about the dangers of using alcohol and tobacco.

    Note that the methamphetamine that is sold legally, the kind you need a prescription to buy, comes with warnings. It is also produced in a much safer, and much better controlled, manner. You do not have to worry that pharmaceutical methamphetamine is laced with hazardous residual chemicals, a common and serious problem with illegal methamphetamine. It is unusual for a pharmaceutical production facility to burst into flames; it is common for an illegal production facility to explode.

    People are going to use methamphetamine recreationally, and we need to accept that as a fact of life. The issue we need to address is the health and safety of the public, both those who use methamphetamine and those who do not. Banning the drug has increased the risk to public health; we can do better.
  • Re:Legalize it all. (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday June 03, 2012 @12:06PM (#40201469)

    I have never seen a crazed methamphetamine user (I am sure they exist, I have just never seen one), but I have seen a house burn to the ground after the byproducts of methamphetamine production caught fire.

    I had a roommate in college who used to be a very heavy meth user. He quit because he started becoming very paranoid and was beginning to hallucinate. It got to the point where he literally thought everyone was out to kill him, and he was afraid that he was going to have to start killing people to save his life. I'm not sure how he realized it was the drugs, or how he managed to stop, but I would be very willing to bet that he was quite dangerous during that time.

    I used to use Meth, it doesn't make you trip. What makes you trip is staying awake for up to two weeks without sleeping, which is what the Meth allows you to do. I saw one chick go for nearly a month with less than an hour of sleep a week. After 3 or 4 days you start hallucinating from the sleep deprivation. Keep that up for long enough and you'll seriously fuck your program upstairs and need an ICU to sober up.
    I quit because it was rotting my teeth and I realized I was turning into a piece of shit. Put it down, walked away. Had jitters for a few days, trouble sleeping for a few months, and that was it. I smoke some weed now and then still, and sometimes have a few beers, but that's the extent of my partying these days.

    Most of the people who get really wacked out on Meth are actually using what we called "Crank". It's basically a bath-tub version of Meth, but what you end up with chemically speaking is a little different. Or a lot different depending on who did the cooking and what they used. It's just another example of people turning to the strange and exotic when you take away the common and familiar.

    As for dangerous, well I'll have to throw this at you:
    ""Dangerous!" cried Gandalf. "And so am I, very dangerous: more dangerous than anything you will ever meet, unless you are brought alive before the seat of the Dark Lord. And Aragorn is dangerous, and Legolas is dangerous. You are beset with dangers, Gimli son of Gloin; for you are dangerous yourself, in your own fashion. Certainly the forest of Fangorn is perilous - not least to those that are too ready with their axes; and Fangorn himself, he is perilous too; yet he is wise and kindly nonetheless."

  • Re:Legalize it all. (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday June 03, 2012 @01:03PM (#40201871)
    tit-for-tat anecdote time:
    of course, it is up to the user to use in moderation. i have done meth plenty of times, in small amounts, and never went past the 2 day mark, while friends have. it's the same with anything. i've done cocaine plenty of times, but i haven't stolen, sold all my worldly possessions, or hurt anyone to get a fix. if i can moderate, anyone can.
  • by LocalH ( 28506 ) on Sunday June 03, 2012 @01:06PM (#40201891) Homepage

    The fact that you say that people think of it as some sort of "sacred text" is part of the problem. Intelligent people such as my self just wish to see the government follow the procedures that the Constitution requires it to follow, in order to gain power that they are not explicitly already granted in the Consitution itself, nor in any amendment to the same. The Constitution is meant to limit the government and empower the people, and nowadays it does neither from a practical standpoint.

    We don't need a Constitutional reform, we need a legislative reform to prevent laws from being passed that violate the Constitution, without going through the proper process to amend the same. I would say we need a judicial reform as well, to prevent judges from acting in a manner contrary to the Constitution.

    A good start would be to make violating the Constitution a treasonous act on the part of every government employee with power (all the way up to the POTUS). Also, if one knowingly signs a bill that goes contrary to the Constitution, then one should be barred for life from serving in any public office, even on a city council or county board, much less on a national level.

  • Re:Legalize it all. (Score:3, Interesting)

    by stochos ( 2653883 ) on Sunday June 03, 2012 @02:20PM (#40202387)

    I don't think anyone has ever eaten some guy's face after smoking a cigarette or filling up their car with gas, so no... the same reason shouldn't be used to ban cigarettes and fossil fuels.

    There are rational arguments for why you might want to ban either (and arguments for why you shouldn't), but the one you're presenting here makes no sense whatsoever.

    The only evidence that the face-eating zombie guy was on bath salts is speculation by a police officer, who was previously quoted in the Miami Herald as saying that the cause of the attack was "cocaine" and "a new form of LSD" time.com [time.com]. They're just pulling it out of their rear ends to fit an anti-drug agenda. In fact, no drugs were found on the suspect, and no toxicology reports have been released proving he was on ANY drugs. The other high-profile murder attributed to bath salts was the murder of a New Jersey student that led to the passing of Megan's Law, criminalizing possession and sale of bath salts. Well lo and behold, the murderer turned out not to have any bath salts in his system [nj.com]. What a shock! I wouldn't be surprised if the same is the case with the face-eating zombie. Why is it so hard for people to accept that people can commit horrific acts without the aid of drugs or demons? Some people are just mentally ill.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday June 03, 2012 @02:25PM (#40202421)

    The drug problem is two fold.

    On the one hand prohibition creates drug cartels and costs a ton of tax dollars to enforce. These drug cartels fight each other for turf and this creates a lot of violence among drug dealers.

    On the other side of the equation are drug users. Drug users often

    A: Don't work, they can't keep a job

    B: Don't have money

    C: Need money to get high

    So they rob banks, they rob liquor stores, they rob cars, and the crime rate sky rockets. This is why people are afraid to work at a liquor store, they may get shot by someone seeking a high. A huge percentage of theft occurs by drug addicts who want their next high and need money.

    While legalizing drugs may eliminate the violent drug cartels (or substantially reduce their numbers), it won't eliminate the problems associated with drug addicts.

    One problem with America is that we take a very one sided, militant, approach to the drug problem. We spend the overwhelming majority of our efforts only going after the supply side of the equation, the drug dealers and drug cartels, while we ignore the demand side. We think that if we can simply overpower the drug cartels with more police forces and wasted tax dollars, we will fix the problem. It doesn't work. We need a smarter drug policy, one that also focuses on the demand side as well, for example through rehabilitation programs. Reduce the demand for drugs, get drug addicts off of drugs, and there will be less money to be made in drug dealing and that will also diminish the drug cartels. We need a more balanced approach that targets both the demand and the supply, not just one that simply goes after the supply side of the equation with brute force.

  • Re:Legalize it all. (Score:5, Interesting)

    by FiloEleven ( 602040 ) on Sunday June 03, 2012 @03:16PM (#40202775)

    Don't fall prey to the fallacy of the single cause. There was also Dupont, who wanted nylon to replace hemp. There were also racist motivations: making marihuana illegal was a good way to deport the Mexican laborers who were "stealing our jobs" and the Negro musicians who were "corrupting our youth." I'm sure there are a number of other fringe reasons for making it illegal.

    Also, it actually started with the Marihuana Tax Act, in which farmers could only grow hemp if they bought stamps to do so from the government. The government didn't sell any stamps. The scheduling came later.

  • by TheRealGrogan ( 1660825 ) on Sunday June 03, 2012 @04:11PM (#40203191)

    As opposed to what... keeping things the way they are now, introducing mandatory minimum sentences for growing a fucking plant, raising the stakes and increasing the profits for illegal growers and distributors, while doing even more harm to society? Quality and product safety will also regress and cause more harm.

    There is a breaking point with taxation and control of substances. Don't cross it. Yes, they made that mistake with tobacco in the early 90's in Ontario. Everyone and their dog was selling contraband cigarettes, including people's brands of choice too. There was at least one person, if not more, in every work place. They gave in, reduced the taxes so that smokes were back down to less than $3 a pack and the contraband stopped immediately. (People were stuck with cartons of these cigarettes) Then, of course, the anti tobacco lobbyists keep running their mouths and the price crept up again and now they have this new problem that they can't combat. It's very difficult to enforce because of the loopholes that the native people have.

    There is still some control though, you still don't have random assholes and criminal gangs growing tobacco and selling bags of it and getting violent over it. If they made tobacco illegal like cannabis there certainly would be more trouble.

  • Re:Legalize it all. (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Internetuser1248 ( 1787630 ) on Sunday June 03, 2012 @05:03PM (#40203573)
    I remember seeing a story in the UK news recently: Some guy had taken a 'legal high' so called ecstasy substitute, and died from it. His parents were out for blood. Their position was that if the government was more aggressive in prohibiting new recreational drugs their son would still be alive. Even disregarding all the completely obvious flaws in their argument (mainly the impossibility of regulating these substances as discussed in the OP), it was a massive facepalm moment for me. I felt like grabbing them by the collar and shaking them and saying "If ecstasy were legal he would still be alive".

    I have taken a few untested analogues myself, only after extensive research. Personally I thoroughly recommend tryptamine analogues especially 5-methoxy Di-isopropyl Tryptamine, that stuff is the bees knees. But the fact remains, lsd, ecstasy and marijuana are relatively safe, there are some deaths from ecstasy, maybe one or two from lsd, and exactly 0 from marijuana. Experimental analogues on the other hand are dangerous. Yes I know that the war on drugs is not there to prevent user harm, but I want everyone else to know that too and start asking why we don't start reducing that harm.

Where it is a duty to worship the sun it is pretty sure to be a crime to examine the laws of heat. -- Christopher Morley