Last week CNN ran a report called "Deadly High: How Synthetic Drugs Are Killing Kids." The story highlights the threat posed by "deadly new drugs on America's streets designed to evade the law." In case you are not sure how you should react to this menace, correspondent Drew Griffin tells you. "That, to me, is scary," he remarks during a conversation with a federal prosecutor about an entrepreneur who created an online business that supplied a synthetic psychedelic implicated in the 2012 deaths of two teenagers in Grand Forks, North Dakota.
Griffin is right that something scary is going on here. But it is not the inherent hazards of psychoactive substances so much as the way the government senselessly magnifies those hazards.
The CNN report focuses on 25I-NBOMe (a.k.a. 2C-I-NBOMe), a psychedelic drug discovered in 2003 that first became available online in 2010. According to Erowid.org, a website that provides information about a wide variety of psychoactive substances, 25I-NBOMe had "nearly no history of human use prior to 2010."
In June 2012, two years after 25I-NBOMe popped up on the Internet, Christian Bjerk, an 18-year-old high school football player in Grand Forks, tried a white powder that turned out to be 25I-NBOMe at a house party. The following morning he was found dead on a sidewalk near his home.
A day later, Elijah Stai, a teenager from Park Rapids, Minnesota, who was about to turn 18 and was visiting his cousin in Grand Forks, ate chocolate that his cousin's boyfriend had spiked with 25I-NBOMe. According to CNN, the boyfriend had swiped the white powder he mixed into the chocolate from a drug dealer and did not know what it was. Elijah's foster brother, who was with him at the time and also sampled the chocolate, said the boyfriend claimed the active ingredient was an extract from psychedelic mushrooms.
Soon afterward, CNN reports, Elijah began "convulsing uncontrollably, foaming at the mouth and hitting his head." He was brain dead by the time he arrived at the hospital, and three days later "his family decided to disconnect his life support."
These are not the only fatalities linked to 25I-NBOMe. Erowid lists nine other apparent 25I-NBOMe overdose deaths in 2012, 2013, and 2014.
Such fatalities seem to be pretty rare events. CNN reports that Motion Resources, which supplied the 25I-NBOMe taken by Christian Bjerk and Elijah Stai, "was up and running for eight months," filling about 30 orders a day. That amounts to thousands of orders, each of which may have contained many doses, but apparently only two deaths have been traced to 25I-NBOMe sold by this company.
Still, 25I-NBOMe looks considerably more dangerous than LSD, which Albert Hoffman discovered in 1943, Congress banned in 1968, and something like 24 million Americans have used. According to a 2008 review of the scientific literature in the journal CNS Neuroscience & Therapeutics, "There have been no documented human deaths from an LSD overdose." In his 2001 book Illegal Drugs: A Complete Guide to Their History, Chemistry, Use and Abuse, addiction specialist Paul M. Gahlinger flatly states that "LSD is not toxic in the biological sense."
Yet while LSD has been banned for nearly half a century, 25I-NBOMe was legal until the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA)added it to Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act in November 2013 (although explicitly selling it for its psychoactive effects could still get suppliers into trouble under the Controlled Substances Analogue Enforcement Act). CNN notes that 25I-NBOMe is "designed to imitate the high of the banned drug LSD." In fact, it is often applied to paper and passed off as LSD.
"After the DEA's successful disruption of global LSD distribution in the early 2000s, acid became increasingly rare," note Earth and Fire Erowid (proprietors of Erowid.org) in a 2013 article about 25I-NBOMe and related compounds. "This created an opening for other super-potent psychedelics to be deposited on perforated paper blotter. Sometimes buyers are correctly informed of the drug's identity, but often it is falsely sold as 'acid' or, even more specifically, 'LSD.'"
Something like that seems to have happened to Renee Honaker, a West Virginia woman who last year "fell to the floor, began convulsing and died" after taking two hits of a substance originally identified as LSD. It turned out to be an NBOMe compound: 25B-NBOMe, which the DEA banned along with 25I-NBOMe in 2013. As the Erowids observe, "It is a darkly poetic indictment of the War on Drugs that LSD, the first synthetic psychedelic, demonized for decades and the target of extremely expensive law enforcement operations, looks to be far safer than its replacements."
Like the ban on marijuana, the ban on LSD encourages people to use novel, quasi-legal substitutes that may prove to be much more dangerous. While certain intrepid psychonauts may be eager to try the latest psychedelic, many other drug users are simply looking for an LSD-like experience that is fun and/or interesting. Like Elijah Stai, they may have no idea what they are actually taking, a perennial hazard of the black market. Furthermore, these naïve drug users are especially likely to take too large a dose, and they are unlikely to receive instructions from suppliers, who are constrained by the drug laws to pretend their products are not intended for human consumption.
The government can always ban the latest LSD substitute, but that only sets the stage for new substitutes, which may be even more dangerous. "The NBOMes are harbingers of things to come," the Erowids warn. "The problems and challenges they pose are problems that the current prohibitionist regulatory framework will naturally continue to generate. For example, new psychoactives under development are reported to be another ten times more potent, with 10,000 doses per gram."
By imposing one ban after another, governments are spurring constant innovation by underground chemists. "As states and the federal government race to 'schedule' or ban chemical compounds," CNN notes, "the manufacturers are staying one step ahead of the law by constantly changing the drugs' chemical composition." This is how synthetic drugs are killing kids.
This article originally appeared at Forbes.com.