These Lousy Drugs Are Going to End the Drug War

It's a rare day when the prohibitionist establishment and die-hard drug policy reformers are in agreement -- but that happens to be the case more often than not when it comes to what the U.S. insists on calling "synthetic drugs."
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Close-up of a man taking pill
Close-up of a man taking pill

By Stefanie Jones

It's a rare day when the prohibitionist establishment and die-hard drug policy reformers are in agreement -- but that happens to be the case more often than not when it comes to what the U.S. insists on calling "synthetic drugs." Known more properly around the world as NPS (novel psychoactive substances), this group of newly created or rediscovered drugs may very well, both groups believe, signal the death of the modern drug war.

Which is ironic, given the modern drug war created them.

Although the precise timeline is debatable, NPS -- including substances with names like K2, Spice, mephedrone, "flakka" and 25i-nBOMe--only started to become a true issue of concern about 10 years ago. That's when sources like the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) began noticing a sharp increase of these substances on the market, exponentially increasing each year. In 2014, an incredible 101 new substances were tracked.

The producer-side business case for these substances is clear: If a popular drug is outlawed, why not change the chemical formula a tiny bit to evade laws and hope the effects are reasonably the same?

The market abhors a vacuum. Such thinking would only be possible from within the current prohibition-based drug war framework.

The problem is, the effects are often not reasonably the same as the "classic" drugs NPS are meant to imitate. "Synthetic drugs" are popularized by media tales of deaths and lives otherwise destroyed through encounters with the substances. Like most drug reporting, the majority of these stories represent extreme cases. Yet buried beneath the hype and hyperbole there remain nuggets of truth borne out in many people's experience.

It's one of the first things prohibitionists and reformers agree on about NPS: These drugs are just not that great.

Now, before I call down the wrath of every psychonaut out there who can wax poetic about why 4-HO-DIPT is in fact far better than psilocybin mushrooms, it's worth mentioning how ridiculously broad the category of "NPS" or "synthetic drugs" is anyway. It encompasses substances that are genuinely new (i.e., have just been synthesized and put into the human-use market) as well as substances that have been around for a while -- sometimes even hundreds of years, as in the case of kratom -- but are experiencing a resurgence in use or otherwise coming to public attention for the first time.

And to be fair, certainly some of what's categorized as NPS are better than others -- which is to say, they produce desirable effects with manageable risk, and may even have some research and history of human use behind them. Kratom, for example, provides a real alternative for those hoping to eliminate or reduce their use of opioids. And there are certain "first generation" NPS -- which used to be known (and still are in some circles) as "research chemicals" -- that remain popular today. The famed Alexander "Sasha" Shulgin, who synthesized and discovered many of them, wrote two entire books about their benefits in the 1990s.

Even with the truly new NPS there's something of a hierarchy of desirability and risk. For example, within the synthetic cannabinoid group (commonly known as "synthetic marijuana"), the first products to hit the market contained chemical structures pulled from medical journals -- such as the JWH series of cannabinoids. As those and others coming directly from research were outlawed, the newer synthetic cannabinoids appearing on the market are more likely to be variations that have never been seen in science or research -- and produce more unpredictable and occasionally quite dangerous outcomes.

Keeping all of this in mind, that's why it's still pretty fair to say that the majority of NPS do not produce effects that are more desirable than the "classic" drugs that remain much more popular -- marijuana, MDMA, LSD, and opioids, for a start.

What roughly binds them together is our ignorance of them: We typically know very little about what's classified as NPS -- and that means everything from the gold standard of peer-reviewed research down to generally accessible public information.

That's a reality that leads to another thing the prohibitionist and reformer camp generally agree on: We need more information.

Both sides have an interest in learning more about these substances, their risks and effects, and getting that information out to the public. And while prohibitionists' messaging emphasizes "don't do this," and reformers' "if you do..." this is a battle where a clear compromise seems possible.

In another battle, prohibitionists and reformers seem -- finally -- to be reaching agreement: Targeting people who use drugs for criminal punishment is no longer seen as an effective deterrent to use.

Even though elected officials around the country are still moving to outlaw various NPS, in many cases the legislation doesn't include criminal penalties for people found possessing these substances. And the rationale for it adopts much of what reformers have long been saying: that arresting people who use drugs is counterproductive and simply adds to America's unhealthy obsession with mass incarceration. Not to mention, we may be learning to have some compassion -- at long last -- for people who use drugs, focusing instead on providing access to treatment and other resources.

All this agreement can only signal the end of the drug war, right?

Unfortunately, not quite yet. The existence of this seemingly endless array of newly-created drugs has forced the prohibitionist establishment to move toward a new focus on two areas of drug policy where significant disagreement remains: what to do about the sale and production of psychoactive substances, and more generally, whether the different physical, mental and emotional states they produce have any place in society.

In U.S. jurisdictions where NPS legislation has not targeted people for use and possession, it often doubles down on going after sellers and producers. In New York, the state with the highest number of bills involving NPS, over half of the 17 proposed involve creating or expanding harsh penalties for those caught selling. And this from a state that, like many others, has largely been moving in the opposite direction toward a health-centered approach to drug policy. NPS legislation like the kind being considered in New York and elsewhere is a sign that while it may eventually become legal(ish) to possess substances, prohibition will remain in full force at the market level.

But even more disturbing news comes from outside of the U.S. Recently the UK, tired of chasing down every new chemical, has conceived -- and passed -- the Psychoactive Substances Act of 2016. The law prohibits any substance that has a "psychoactive effect" on a person's "mental functioning or emotional states." It has been widely derided as "crazy bad" and unenforceable.

Is this the dystopian future? One where we don't have the freedom to choose to be any different than our regular, rational, everyday selves? (Aside from coffee during the weekday and alcohol on the weekend, of course!)

I hope not. But one thing is for sure. More completely and more quickly than any of the "classic" drugs, the creation and existence of NPS has forced two of the thorniest issues in drug policy to the fore: whether altered states are even allowable, and whether it should possible for anyone to profit off of them.

Answering these two questions will force an end, one way or another, to the drug-by-drug prohibition-based drug war we know. Let's hope we get the answers right.

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Stefanie Jones is the director of audience development for the Drug Policy Alliance.

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