Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute.  His latest study is “Designer Drugs: A New, Futile Front in the War on Illegal Drugs.”
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Synthetic drug packets. (Drug Enforcement Administration)

Lately, the media has been in a tizzy about synthetic or “designer” drugs. These produce physical and psychological effects similar to traditional, mind-altering substances like marijuana, cocaine and heroin. But they’re different in a crucial way. Not only are they frequently marketed as potpourri, pet food, air freshener and other legal products, but because they are artificial substances, even a slight change in the chemical composition can make the targeted drug no longer covered by existing law.

CBS News warns of a “scary new designer drug” hitting the streets of Chicago. The Washington Post identifies a “deadly craze” afflicting cities and towns in Alabama. And regulators are scrambling to criminalize the new chemical variants. Both the federal government and state governments are enacting broad bans that seek to cover all psychoactive synthetic drugs even if traffickers alter the chemical composition. 

But the prohibitionist approach to drugs is partly to blame for this development and will surely fail to stamp it out. Instead, we should adopt a harm-reduction strategy based on regulating synthetic drugs within a legal framework. 

For one thing, there isn’t an “epidemic” of these drugs among teenagers, as news outlets sometimes report. Natural marijuana, the mildest and least harmful of illegal drugs, is still, by far, the illicit drug of choice among teenagers. The University of Michigan’s Monitoring the Future study in 2014 found that some 35 percent of high school seniors reported using marijuana during the previous year, and that figure has remained remarkably steady over the past two decades.

That same study showed that the use of synthetic marijuana is far less of a factor, and even that modest rate is declining steadily among eighth graders, 10th graders and 12th graders. Between 2010 and 2014, reported use among high school seniors in the 12-month periods dropped from 11.4 percent to less than 6 percent, as the adverse health consequences of designer drugs become more widely known. 

The trend in the use of bath salts (a psychoactive, artificial drug based on the Khat plant from East Africa) showed a similar pattern. In 2012, less than 2 percent of high school seniors reported using bath salts during the previous 12 months. In the 2014 survey, it was barely 1 percent. 

Despite these low numbers of use, opponents say we need to tightly regulate or even ban these synthetic drugs because they’re so dangerous. Synthetic versions often vary wildly in both potency and purity. Purchasers have no way to determine before ingesting the product whether it has been contaminated with another substance that may be unexpectedly dangerous or even poisonous.

CNN correspondent Tricia Escobedo underscored a key problem associated with the current approach to dealing with designer drugs.  “No one really knows what’s in these so-called synthetic drugs,” she noted. But that is not really a problem unique to those substances; it is an inherent problem with all illegal drugs. By driving drug use underground, prohibition laws put the trade in the hands of dubious enterprises with inadequate quality control standards or criminals looking for a quick, massive return on their investment. 

Rather than launching a new front in the War on Drugs (a strategy that has already failed with marijuana, cocaine and heroin), policymakers should focus on a harm reduction approach. For synthetic drugs, this would mean creating a legal framework under which the trade in such products would be dominated by legitimate businesses.  Laws should focus on requiring production under sanitary conditions, the accurate labeling of all ingredients and the inclusion of warning labels for consumers about the adverse health consequences of misuse.

A modest harm-reduction strategy would not be a panacea. Some people will continue to abuse synthetic drugs, just as they do other illegal substances, alcohol and prescription drugs. They will suffer consequences to their health.  But regulating the trade in synthetic drugs within a legal framework is an attainable objective that would reduce the negative impact.

It is a decidedly better approach than adding yet another front to the futile war on drugs.