In 2012, lawmakers hailed legislation that outlawed the sale of 26 designer drugs — substances meant to mimic the properties of illegal drugs such as marijuana or cocaine. The synthetics have been linked to incidences of violence, overdoses and suicides.
Law enforcement agencies and lawmakers said the measure (PL 112-144) was an important step in fighting the substances. Yet, a year after the law’s passage, there are more than 250 types of synthetic drugs still sold in the United States, according to the Drug Enforcement Agency, and law enforcement can’t keep up. The problem is that once a certain substance is banned or restricted, manufacturers can slightly alter the chemical structure of the illicit substance to make a new version that skirts the law.
“A change of a molecule or two to a banned drug is sometimes enough to make a new and legal alternative,” said Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, during a September hearing of the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control, of which he is co-chairman.
The drugs became particularly popular in the past five years, with poison control center calls and emergency room visits peaking around 2011. After the law’s passage, there was a slight drop-off in incidents, but law enforcement agents and government officials are concerned usage is beginning to rise again as manufacturers modify their products. Lawmakers have introduced more bills, but the question remains what Congress can do to help law enforcement stay on top of this rapidly changing issue.
“This is a difficult problem without an easy solution,” Grassley said.
Experts attribute the growing popularity of synthetic drugs to their easy availability, the misperception that they are “natural” and less harmful than regular drugs, and the fact that they are less detectable by standard drug tests. The substances can easily be purchased online or in convenience stores, and they are sometimes marketed as potpourri, bath salts, plant food, incense or jewelry cleaner.
Many of the substances sold are synthetic cannabinoids, branded as spice or K2 among other names, that mimic the effects of THC, the primary psychoactive ingredient in marijuana. There are also synthetic cathinone derivatives, including bath salts, that work as stimulants similar to cocaine, methamphetamine or MDMA.
The drugs’ shifting ingredients make them particularly dangerous for users, who cannot reliably predict what is in the product or what effect it will have. In September, a synthetic cathinone known as Molly was linked to the deaths of four people at concerts in Boston, New York and the District of Columbia, said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., chairwoman of the Narcotics Control Caucus.
Government officials say there was a dramatic increase in poison control center calls and emergency room visits related to synthetic drugs from 2010 to 2011.