Underground Chemists Leave Drug Warriors In the Dust

One of the under-appreciated challenges of banning stuff is that you have to define with some degree of precision whatever it is you're trying to outlaw. Write a law too broadly and you might render illegal things (and anger constituencies) that were never on your radar. Write too narrowly, and you miss your target entirely. And if you set out to ban chemicals, natural or artificial, that make people feel good, you soon discover that savvy chemists are perfectly capable of making new chemicals that get people just as high.

Writes Brandon Keim at Wired:

The war on drugs has a new front, and so far it appears to be a losing one.

Synthetic mimics of marijuana, dissociative drugs and stimulants — such as the “bath salts” allegedly consumed by Randy Eugene, the Florida man shot after a horrific face-eating assault — are growing in popularity and hard to control. Every time a compound is banned, overseas chemists synthesize a new version tweaked just enough to evade a law’s letter.

It’s 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,” said forensic toxicologist Kevin Shanks of AIT Laboratories, an Indiana-based chemical testing company.

“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,” Shanks continued.

The trick here is that people aren't interested in specific chemicals — they're interested in what those chemicals can do. And there's more than one way to get a cat really damned buzzed.

Even seemingly straightforward efforts to drive stuff underground run afoul of the writing-laws-is-hard challenge. Efforts to ban nasty, evil "assault weapons" without angering hunters and target shooters famously relied on specific model names and cosmetic details, leaving gun-fanciers to mourn the loss of bayonet lugs and pistol grips on their newly renamed, yet functionally unaltered, firearms.

And that's just engineering. Chemistry adds just a wee bit more complexity.

Wired reports that the underground chemists cooking up new intoxicants often work from above-board research by established scientists working for universities and pharmaceutical companies.

One class of popular cannabinoid mimics, for example, was developed by respected Clemson University organic chemist John Huffman, who sought to isolate marijuana’s chemical properties for use in cancer research. Other “legal high” ingredients have similar pedigrees, with designers including researchers at Israel’s Hebrew University and the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer.

As the new drugs appear, governments move to extend prohibition to cover them, but "[b]etween 400 and 450 compounds were synthesized by Huffman alone, and those represent just one of four major groups of cannabinoid mimics." The downside is that the new drugs are developed so quickly that nobody really knows what they do beyond getting people high; when compounds are altered week to week by black-market producers, safety testing isn't really on the agenda. So the war on drugs once again makes us all a little bit safer. Not.

It's probably unwise to predict eternal victory for underground chemists — lawmakers will surely come up, at some point, with a sufficiently indiscriminate legislative hammer with which bludgeon this particular "problem" — but it's certainly fun to watch prohibitionists run up against the limits of their power to make off-limits things to which much of the population wants access.

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  • Fist of Etiquette||

    The solution is so obvious. I propose legislation that allows for the Secretary of Health and Human Services to determine what substances are to be outlawed at any given time.

  • ||

    Just finished Henry Paulson's account of the clusterfuck that was 2008.

    One of his solutions? MOAR POWAH!!!

  • Tulpa the White||

    Obviously. Just like if you feel yourself going into a skid on an icy road, the answer is to floor the gas.

  • Tulpa the White||

    Yeah, it appears the real problem here is the rule of law and its outdated requirement that the subjects of the state actually be able to know what is allowed and what isn't allowed at any given time.

  • juris imprudent||

    To some that is a feature not a bug.

  • ||

    The solution is so obvious. I propose legislation that allows for the Secretary of Health and Human Services to determine what substances are to be outlawed at any given time.

    Seems like a no-brainer to me. Clearly the problem of illicit drug use can be competently handled only at the federal level. So I say give the federal government any powers it deems necessary to win this war.

    We can't afford to blink in the face of this scourge.

  • Lord Humungus||

    COMMERCE CLAUSE!

  • Rich||

    I propose legislation that allows for the Secretary of Health and Human Services to determine what substances are to be outlawed at any given time.

    That's probably already in PPACA.

  • some guy||

    And it is up to the average citizen to keep track of the Secretary's whims.

    Ignorance is no excuse. If you weren't doing anything wrong you wouldn't have anything to worry about. Both the spirit of the law AND the letter of the law matter! Etc.

  • ||

    In the words of Homer the cannibal: "Mmm...face."

  • WarrenT||

    D'oh! Nuts!

  • Hugh Akston||

    This problem will solve itself in the long run. Eventually it will be simpler just to ban everything by default and then legalize substances individually.

  • ¿Ex Nihilo?||

    Eventually it will be simpler just to ban everything by default and then legalize substances individually.

    Stop giving them ideas.

  • Enough About Palin||

    Could work.

  • ||

    That's basically what Texas did. The head shops kept coming out with new versions every time the feds/state banned them so they passed a law that banned all cannabis substitutes with language that covers practically anything lots of "or any derivatives".

  • Harrigan||

    Yeah that's what Canada did with mephedrone. Something about prohibiting amphetamine "analogues." I thought the U.S. had similarly-worded laws on the books for that particular substance?

  • sarcasmic||

    That's the difference between Europe and America (and why the left so envies Europe).

    In Europe you are allowed to do what the law says you may do.

    In America you are free to do that which is not prohibited by law.

    For now.

  • ¿Ex Nihilo?||

    That which is not forbidden is mandatory?

  • sarcasmic||

    In the European system you must produce a law that says you can do something.

    In the American system they must produce a law that says you can't.

  • Randian||

    Man, where do you get this stuff?

  • Randian||

    Just for reference, I am looking to the cite that the Continent's Civil Code (generally speaking) is a permissive regime rather than a prohibitory one.

  • BakedPenguin||

    How did you get "Europe is permissive" from what he wrote?

  • BarryD||

    I think we need to approach this in a different way.

    The face-eating episode is a perfect time to say to people who support the drug war, "Look, if we just let people like this have pot, and a few other clean, known drugs to play with, then these nasty drugs wouldn't even exist."

    I don't think all that many people "get it", still. Let's make it clear and simple.

  • BakedPenguin||

    A lot (I'd say most) of prohibitionists don't really care about results. They think drug use is wrong and has to be punished. End of story. The victims of the drug war are collateral damage.

  • sarcasmic||

    It's a moral issue for them.

  • NoVAHockey||

    that they don't have any?

  • Hugh Akston||

    No, they definitely have issues.

  • NoVAHockey||

    sorry, i meant morals.

  • sarcasmic||

    Morality is a sense of right and wrong.
    Yeah they have morals. They believe using drugs is wrong. Why? Because it's wrong. Period.
    Drugs are bad because using drugs is wrong.
    No explanation. It's. Just. Wrong.

    That's when you know someone has taken a moral stance, and that there is little point in arguing with them.

    I'll try the Stossel line "Do you own your own body and if so why can't you decide what you put in it?" and quit.

  • ¿Ex Nihilo?||

    Do you own your own body and if so why can't you decide what you put in it?

    This is even more to the point.

  • Harrigan||

    Yep. Using moralistic ideology to make an argument lowers a person's IQ by a minimum of 15 points. Over time, the IQ loss increases and eventually becomes permanent. That's why anti-drug warriors say such incredibly moronic things. It's because they are genuine morons.

  • BarryD||

    M-tards!

  • jasno||

    Drug use is morally wrong because it interferes with your ability to serve the society that owns you. Religious nuts are collectivists who like to pull-out the individual liberties card when someone threatens their particular rituals but otherwise they couldn't give a shit about freedom.

  • BarryD||

    I'm thinking about regular people, not the leaders of the prohibitionist movement.

    Leaders tend to be self-interested, anyway. They don't care about who gets hurt, once they're getting a 6-figure paycheck from a nonprofit.

  • sarcasmic||

    When all you know about drugs is what the DARE officer told you and what you see on the television, it's likely you're going to believe the bullshit.

  • SugarFree||

    I'm a little too old to have gotten the full force of the DARE nonsense, but I did get a little. The douche managed to argue that the only high from pot was from you holding your breath and that pot was so much more powerful now than in the 1960s that it was a deadly drug.

    I let out an Edna Krabappel HA! at one point, but the auditorium was too big for the teachers to pin-point me.

  • Rich||

    The douche managed to argue that the only high from pot was from you holding your breath

    That's ridiculous. Even little kids know you get high from *exhaling*.

  • BarryD||

    It is more powerful, sometimes to the point of "not fun any more". So I've been told by some complete strangers, of course, since I would have no way of knowing anything about an illegal substance firsthand.

    Deadly, not so much...

  • R C Dean||

    Your very tippy-toppy high end hydro hybrid varieties should be handled with care, for sure.

  • SKR||

    But there are plenty of "fun" varieties out there.

  • Enjoy Every Sandwich||

    They didn't have DARE when I was a kid. We got a movie with Sonny Bono telling us how bad marijuana is.

  • SugarFree||

    Now that's some prime irony.

  • Enjoy Every Sandwich||

    Truly. I think the assumption was that we kids would see Sonny as "cool" and thus be more inclined to listen to him.

    A laughable theory to say the least.

  • Killazontherun||

    We had a nine week health class in seventh grade by a huge lady named Mrs. Shepard. Her methodology was to read gruesome newspaper clippings to us. Recall one where a young woman felt an LSD flashback coming on while babysitting. She locked herself up in a closet to keep away from the kids and preceded to claw her skin off. She must have had thirty or more clippings of a similar nature she read to us the week the subject matter was drugs. She did the same for other subjects, like DWIs and teen suicides. Turned me off from reading horror for a while actually, but not towards drug usage.

  • sarcasmic||

    I missed DARE by one year.

  • sarcasmic||

    And I'm not sad about it.

  • Rimfax||

    I swear I remember reading this all before, but back in 1986. Only then, it was about MDMA and fentanyl analogs and synthetic heroin in general.

    I recall that they changed the laws in the late 80s to more catch-all language that "solved" this "problem".

  • BakedPenguin||

    Yes, it also reminded me of the "designer drug" pearl clutch of the late 80's.

  • jasno||

    This?

    According to the link, it only applies to products 'intended for human consumption'. I guess that doesn't apply if you label the container 'bath salts' or 'room deodorizer'.

  • SKR||

    Who ever could have predicted that loophole?

  • ||

    Every time a compound is banned, overseas chemists synthesize a new version tweaked just enough to evade a law’s letter.

    I would just make a law that prohibits getting high, period. And I would tack it on as a rider to a law banning face-eating.

  • ||

    Or being naked while high and face-eating.

  • ||

    Or being naked while . . . face-eating.

    How else are you gonna do it but naked? Have you never gotten vitreous stains on your good clothes?? Not even club soda will get that out.

  • ||

    Lobster bibs.

  • ||

    Lobster bibs.

    You, sir, are an innovator. Consider my prior comment retracted.

  • Mo' $parky||

    a law banning face-eating.

    I was with you right up to this point, killjoy.

  • ||

    I was with you right up to this point, killjoy.

    Oh, well excuuuuuse me. I just want society to be safe. Face-eating is all fun and games until someone loses an eye.

  • SugarFree||

    You can fuck a face, but you can't eat it? What is happening in America?

  • ||

    You can fuck a face, but you can't eat it? What is happening in America?

    I think two consenting adults should be allowed to engage in whatever behavior they choose, including face-eating. But then, can a person of sound mind ever be truly able to meaningfully consent to having his face eaten? Perhaps a written contract drawn up before mealtime would be a solution. But then what happens if, in the middle of the meal, the eatee decides he wants no more of this? Maybe a safe word? Or, if the lips and tongue have already been consumed, a prior understanding that the eatee can tap out?

    Questions abound, and I think they all need to be addressed before we just give carte blanche to face-eating.

  • SugarFree||

    I can't believe you would sully the simple beauty of face-eating by dragging lawyers into it. It's like napalming butterflies.

  • ||

    I can't believe you would sully the simple beauty of face-eating by dragging lawyers into it. It's like napalming butterflies.

    Think it through, hippie. Can you imagine the litigatory nightmare that would ensue if this thing was allowed to happen as a free-for-all? I'm not saying we can't eat face, but there needs to be tight regulation in place, preferably federal. The lawyers you're so adamant about keeping at bay would have a field day with this laissez faire free-for-all you advocate.

  • SugarFree||

    Fuck off, slaver.

  • SKR||

    I can't help but read that as "liturgical nightmare". Sorta takes on a whole other dimension.

  • ||

    So, is napalming butterflies illegal??

  • Rasilio||

    It has actually happened sort of.

    Back about 10 years ago there was a case in Germany where a wanna be cannibal found someone who had a fetish with being eaten on line and they met signed a contract and sometime later the both got what they wanted. The Cannibal then tried to use the contract to prove his innocence

  • ||

    The Cannibal then tried to use the contract to prove his innocence.

    If I'd been on the jury, and if they convinced me that it was mutually agreed upon, I'd have acquitted.

  • Rasilio||

    I don't remember if he was acquitted or not but the trial was complicated by the fact that there was no law against cannibalism in Germany at the time.

  • ||

    . . . there was no law against cannibalism in Germany at the time.

    Well the acquittal would've been a no-brainer then.

  • Rasilio||

    Link to the story for those who are curious...

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/worl.....ukeharding

  • ||

    Lovely story! An excerpt:

    On the evening of March 9, the two men went up to the bedroom in Meiwes' rambling timbered farmhouse. Mr Brandes swallowed 20 sleeping tablets and half a bottle of schnapps before Meiwes cut off Brandes' penis, with his agreement, and fried it for both of them to eat . . . "With every bite, my memory of him grew stronger," [Mr. Meiwes] said.

  • jasno||

    We need to breed a standardized American teenager for research purposes - the human equivalent of the white lab rat. We'll seal them in a jar and inject various chemicals. Anything that causes a smile to emerge is subsequently placed on the schedule 1 list.

  • Raston Bot||

    What if this guy was just nuttier than squirrel shit? Can they ban that?

  • juris imprudent||

    I know the DSM-IV covers a lot, but I don't think face-eating is in there.

  • Enjoy Every Sandwich||

    Maybe they'll go full-bore on the "precursor" route. So it'll be a felony to possess test tubes, bunson burners, and such.

    Those chemistry sets we used to give kids for Christmas? Banned!

    You'll have to have a federal license to take a chemistry class.

    And so on. Standard authoritarian flailing against reality.

  • fried wylie||

    Those chemistry sets we used to give kids for Christmas?

    Those haven't been regulated out of existence already?

  • fried wylie||

    You'll have to have a federal license to take a chemistry class.

    Required for all highschool students. Think of the license revenues!

  • Joe R.||

    I'm a chemical engineer. I am practically unbannable!

  • The Other Kevin||

    When I read stuff like this, I almost get the impression that there is a significant number of people out there who enjoy getting high, and will go out of their way in order to do so.

  • John||

    Wow this really does cause the drug warriors mask to slip doesn't it? Since these are new compounds, how do we know they are dangerous? It seems to me that it might be possible to create new drugs that give the same high as pot but without the side effects. And this leaves no doubt that the drug warriors would ban such a drug immediately.

    The drug war is not about safety or the children or people driving high or anything else. It is about the puritanical idea that any altered state of consciousness is per say bad and must be prohibited.

  • sarcasmic||

    It is about the puritanical idea that any altered state of consciousness is per say bad and must be prohibited.

    BINGO! Give this man a lobster bib!

  • Paul.||

    That will be the law that they'll eventually pass.

    That which is not allowed is prohibited.

    The law could read:

    Any substance causing an altered state of consciousness which has not been explicitly approved by the Board of Controlled Substances shall be deemed illegal.

  • Rich||

    any altered state of consciousness is per say bad and must be prohibited.

    Except ASCs produced by sleep, sex, alcohol, and *CONTROL OVER OTHERS*!!

  • Mo' $parky||

    Oh anon-bot, you clearly misread the article.

  • Paul.||

    The war on drugs has a new front, and so far it appears to be a losing one.

    No it doesn't, and no it's not.

    In fact, I propse a new word for the War on Drugs. It simply doesn't do justice to the root idea from which the drug war spawns.

    We need to call it the Substance Control War, or Ministry of Control or something.

    Never underestimate the government's ability to regulate or ban something through sheer force of will.

    As long as we keep voting for these cretins, they'll keep trying.

    It's about Control. The War on Drugs is a mere side effect.

  • fried wylie||

    overseas chemists

    FUCKING FURRINERS!!111oneoneone.

  • Devil's Advocate||

    They took our jerrrrrbs!

  • ||

    Great way to throw in a South Park reference. Two thumbs up!

  • Harrigan||

    I'm glad bath salts are (sort of) illegal. Otherwise I would be utterly helpless to try them and then go and eat someone's face.

  • ||

    And how about re-purposing existing drugs? Viagra was to help with circulation problems for diabetics. And diacetylmorphine was one hell of a cough supresseant, and is

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