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How powerful synthetic drugs will upend drug markets globally

A packet of Spice, a popular synthetic drug. Flickr user <a href="">Matto Fredriksson</a> , CC.
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Keith Humphreys is a professor and director of mental health policy in the Stanford University Department of Psychiatry.  

In a 2011 raid, Slovakian police seized over 4 kilograms of a powerful opioid; enough to cause over 2,000 fatal overdoses. But the opioid wasn’t heroin sourced from Afghanistan, Thailand, Iran or some other far away home of the opium poppy. The drug was far more powerful fentanyl, synthesized on the spot.

The Slovakia bust was a dramatic example of a European trend: Illicit drugs made from plants (e.g., cocaine, heroin) are being replaced in some national drug markets by those that are synthesized (e.g., methamphetamine, fentanyl). The U.S. has had a parallel experience in the past decade with the rise of illicit consumption of synthetic opioids and cannabinoids. If illicit drug markets continue to separate from an agricultural base, it would upend traditional understandings of drug markets and drug policy.

Relying on plants grown in far-off locales increases production prices for drug traffickers. Their product is vulnerable to bad weather, blight, wars, eradication efforts and in transit seizures. The speed at which they can produce drugs is captive to the growth cycle of cannabis sativa, coca and the opium poppy and the time required for long-distance transport. When illicit drugs are synthesized in laboratories close to market, all these risks, costs and constraints vanish. The cost-efficiencies of local, synthetic production would allow drug dealers to lower their prices, thus stimulating more use.

Some traditional approaches to drug interdiction would be obsolete in a drug market dominated by synthetic drugs. With drugs being created domestically, there would be little point in spraying Colombian hillsides or chasing down speedboats and airplanes in the Caribbean. On the positive side, the eclipse of international interdiction efforts would ease the understandable resentment of consumer nations among people in drug source and transit countries (e.g., Peru, Afghanistan, Mexico).

Domestic law enforcement would face new challenges in a synthetic-dominated market.

Most obviously, hiding a kitchen sink-based meth lab is much easier than hiding a field of coca plants. Complicating enforcement further, synthetic drugs can be altered at a molecular level by chemists such that they fall outside current legal definitions of prohibited substances. This is in fact already happening with a new, rising class of drugs called either “legal highs” or “new psychoactive substances”.

Law enforcement might be able to reduce synthetic drug supply by controlling precursor chemicals used in drug production. This approach can work -- putting ephedrine-containing cold medicine on prescription wiped out meth labs in Oregon, for example -- but some precursors are available in such bulk and have so many legal uses that controlling them would be daunting.

Given the economic and enforcement-evasion advantage of synthesizing drugs at market rather than creating thousand mile long agricultural production chains, why hasn't this transformation in drug markets happened long ago?

One of the effects of prohibition is to make industries less efficient, including in adopting innovations. When Apple wants customers to abandon old iPhones for the latest model, it conducts a huge press launch with a coordinated marketing campaign and worldwide product rollout. An illegal drug trafficking organization wanting users to supplant, say, cocaine with methamphetamine, has no such options.

Also, drug policy expert Peter Reuter of the University of Maryland points out that established drug users have narrowly defined preferences. “Even with the vast array of psychoactive substances, there is strong loyalty to the tried and true," he says. "Cocaine users in particular show little enthusiasm for trying new stimulants that would seem to provide even better experiences."

Addiction, by definition, narrows people’s focus and may therefore prevent many heavy users from switching to synthetics.

But every year a new cohort of mostly young people newly become drug users. If they start on synthetics they could come to show the same fealty to them that established users have for old line drugs, thereby converting illicit drug markets of the future to an utterly unfamiliar shape.