Dangerous Drugs in Need of a Smart Fix

Paramedics wheel a listless teen on a stretcher through the doors of a busy emergency room where doctors and nurses are already assembled, gloved hands outstretched in an all-too common ritual to perform another miracle of resuscitation. The tragedy repeats itself on most nights across America as people turn to the dangerous world of synthetic drugs in search of new elixirs. Not long ago, the realm of synthetic "designer drugs" was dominated by well-known staples such as PCP, LSD, and ecstasy (MDMA). Now the market is crowded with candy-sounding labels -- K2, Spice, Bliss, Bombay Blue -- that mimic the effects of illicit narcotics like opium, cannabis and MDMA. Hazardous to your health? You bet. Illegal? Not necessarily.

Why the disconnect? These drugs, called "new psychoactive substances" (NPS) can elude formal classification and control as illicit drugs, allowing traffickers to slip pills and powder packets into teenage hands, marketing them on the Internet or selling them openly in gas stations as "bath salts" or "plant food."

More than 300 NPS are in circulation around the world today, manufactured and distributed by globally integrated drug cartels. We and our foreign partners are playing catch-up. Laboratories, primarily located in Asia, where "cooks" tweak ingredients and alter the chemistry of their concoctions, skirt legal controls; even if raided, they are easily re-assembled. Clearly, the psychoactive substances pose serious health risks and provide criminals with an easy route into the addiction business.

The Obama administration is committed to a balanced approach in countering the drug menace, firstly helping those with substance abuse disorders overcome their addictions through treatment and recovery while stressing prevention and education as the best option to reduce demand for these toxic substances. Alongside this public health focus, we are committed to working with international partners to limit the global spread of synthetic drugs and give our demand reduction and treatment responses room to work.

Internationally, the U.S. Department of State is on the front line countering the sophisticated supply chain that produces, distributes and markets these drugs by developing tools for countries to take on the traffickers together. At the operational level, thanks to a UN program sponsored by the United States, we and dozens of other countries, share intelligence about the criminal networks specializing in NPS. We are working closely with China to pursue hundreds of leads following the arrest of a major NPS producer in Shanghai last year. Last month, the DEA's Project Synergy arrested over 150 people involved in trafficking designer drugs; U.S. law enforcement is now pursuing possible linkages between these criminals and extremist groups in the Middle East.

Success is a long slog in the work of stemming the flow and consumption of illicit drugs. As Ambassador to Colombia from 2007 to 2010, I saw that country pull itself from the brink of being a narco-state to becoming one of the most prosperous nations in our hemisphere, a regional leader, and a global exporter of civilian security strategies. Part of that process involved reducing coca cultivation by over 40 percent, while at home U.S. cocaine consumption declined by an equal amount. If we achieved this level of progress with cocaine, we can take on NPS. The traffickers and their chemists are ingenious, but we are better: We will employ the tools of public health, law enforcement, intelligence and international cooperation to meet the challenge.

June 26 is the International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking