Bath Salts

Underground Chemists Leave Drug Warriors In the Dust

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Maybe we should just ban stuff that you put in packages and sell!

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.