For every 'designer drug' the authorities ban, clandestine labs are churning out a new version. No wonder the law can't keep up.
The term "designer drug" became popular with the acid house and ecstasy boom in the 1990s, but it was never really accurate. The main ingredient in ecstasy pills – MDMA – was first synthesised in 1912 and began its life as a recreational drug in 70s California, years before it became notorious on the rave scene. The drug was never created for the party crowd, but the "designer drug" label stuck as the perfect phrase both to glamorise and demonise the fashionable new high.
There have been some genuine attempts at designer drugs through the years – where people have attempted to create new recreational substances to evade drug laws – but most have been abject failures. In the most notorious example, chemistry student Barry Kidston tried to create a synthetic heroin-like high in 1976 and ended up creating MPTP, a substance so neurotoxic that it gave him Parkinson's disease days after he injected it. As a grim consolation, Kidston's only legacy was to create a drug that is still used today in lab experiments to try and understand this debilitating neurological disorder.
But something has changed on the street drug scene in recent years. For the first time, we can use the term "designer drug" with confidence because we are in the midst of an unnerving scientific revolution in the use and supply of mind-altering substances.
These drugs have hit the headlines under names such as Spice, K2, mephedrone and M-Cat, but there are hundreds more. They are sold euphemistically as "bath salts", "incense" or "research chemicals", and don't get regulated, at least not at first, because they are labelled as "not for human consumption". Unlike previous generations of legal highs that were about as recreational as a slap in the face, they actually work. They get you high.
The two most popular types are synthetic, cannabis-like drugs, sold as smokable plant material, and stimulants, similar to ecstasy and amphetamines. But what makes this a revolution, rather than simply a market innovation, is the scale and speed of drug development. The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Addiction reported 73 new substances last year, meaning new highs were hitting the market at a rate of more than one a week. This wave of new drugs only began five years ago and since then more than 200 previously unknown substances have been found in circulation.
This upsurge in new highs has some serious science behind it. It is worth noting that most traditional drugs of abuse – speed, cocaine, heroin, ecstasy and so on – can be synthesised fairly easily. You need someone with a bit of knowledge and the right ingredients, not always easy to find, but you can complete the process in a back room, basement or jungle. Not so with the new generation of synthetic highs. While most university chemists would sneer at the suggestion that the synthesis was difficult, it still needs a professional laboratory, more so for the constant production of new substances.
It is this constant innovation that is driving the market and making it possible to evade the law. Take the synthetic cannabis drugs, for example. All include variations of the tetrahydrocannabinol or THC molecule, the main active ingredient in cannabis. Hundreds of these variations were created for research purposes and described, often only once or twice, in the pages of obscure scientific journals. They were mostly created in the lab as an exercise in exploring the limits of the cannabinoid molecules but were never used commercially and never tested on humans.
When the legal highs market exploded in 2008, drug researchers started to analyse what was being sold. They found inert plant material, sprayed with obscure substances that were barely known outside the small world of cannabis neurochemistry. It was like finding the new iPhone worked on antimatter.
When Germany identified the substances and banned them in early 2009, new cannabinoids, again never before seen outside the lab, had replaced them within weeks and this is what has been happening ever since. One gets banned and another novel substance takes its place almost immediately. Professional but clandestine labs are rifling the scientific literature for new psychoactive drugs and synthesising them as fast as the law changes. In one of the most interesting developments, a cannabinoid detected in 2012, named XLR-11, was not only new to the drug market but completely new to science. Several previously unknown substances have turned up since. The grey market labs are not only pushing new substances on to the drug market, they are actually innovating drug design. The human testers select themselves of course, unaware of what they're taking, sometimes leading to disastrous results. Information about the dangers of new substances is usually nonexistent.
The whole process has also been an unwitting experiment in drug policy. Despite the free availability of substances as pleasurable as already banned drugs, we have not seen a massive increase in problem users and drug mortality rates have been falling. Furthermore, even with the newly introduced "instant bans", drug laws are simply not able to keep up.
Currently, it is barely possible to detect new drugs at the rate they appear. It has long been clear that the drug war approach of criminalising possession rather than treating problem drug-users has been futile. The revolution in the recreational drug market is a stark reminder of this reality. The war on drugs has not been lost, it has been made obsolete.
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