Designer Drugs Multiplying at Alarming Rate

Designer Drugs Multiplying at Alarming RateAccording to the U.N. 2013 World Drug Report, the number of “designer drugs” is increasing at an unprecedented rate, presenting a new challenge for legislators across the world in terms of public health. The report reveals that the number of designer drugs has skyrocketed over the last three years, but it might not come as a surprise to everybody. From the unforgettable reports of bath salt-induced cannibalism, comatose N-bomb users, and hammer-swinging, naked Kratom users, you might be well aware that the substances in the spotlight today aren’t the “usual suspects” like cocaine and heroin, but the extent of the problem has been driven home with the new report.

What Are Designer Drugs?

The term “designer drugs” seems almost high class, as if users are catching some sort of fashionable drug-wave by using substances when they’re “in,” but the reality is grim and pretty scary. A designer drug is essentially a chemical that has been specifically designed to have similar effects to an existing drug of abuse, but where the chemical formula is sufficiently different to prevent it from falling under existing drug law. They aren’t “designer” because they’re cool and fashionable; they’re “designer” because clandestine chemists purposefully design the substances to flout existing law.

The big problem is that chemical similarity does not equal identical effects. In fact, many of the chemicals actually appear to be even riskier than the substances they attempt to emulate. A perfect example comes in the form of the now-outlawed “spice,” which is a synthetic version of marijuana. While it binds to the same receptors as the drug, it’s thought to do so more powerfully, creating a much more drastic effect than the traditionally illicit drug it claims to replicate. This leads to spice users experiencing severe anxiety, paranoia, and even hallucinations, as well as other effects depending on the specific mixture of chemicals used. Even though things like this may make some designer drugs worse than their traditional counterparts, the biggest danger is the inherent lack of knowledge regarding their contents and specific risks. It’s like playing Russian roulette, but you don’t even really know how many bullets are in the chamber to start with.

The Report

The U.N. report reveals the rapid recent surge in the numbers of designer drugs on the market. In 2009, there were 166 designer drugs reported to the U.N. by member states. By 2012, this figure had risen to 251. This represents over 50 percent more designer drugs in just three years, and the U.N. speculates that names like “meow meow” mislead youths into thinking the substances are safe, harmless fun. The fact that they can ordinarily be bought over the Internet (prominently labeled “not for human consumption”) and many are not controlled by current drug laws further compounds this issue.

Since there are only 234 substances currently controlled internationally, this represents the first time that the number of “legal highs” or “designer drugs” has

exceeded the number of illicit substances. This might seem like an irrelevant quirk of statistics, but it’s far from it. The rapid spike in the number of designer drugs available, alongside the rise in abuse of prescription medicines, could very well mean that people aren’t as interested in illicit substances anymore.

In fact, the report also hints at just that. The U.S., for example, is the global leader in cocaine consumption, but rates of use have been falling. Across the world as a whole, use of traditional drugs remains roughly unchanged, with some minor increases and some minor decreases. Emerging economies aside, it seems like the world’s drug users are increasingly turning to legal and designer counterparts instead.

What Can Be Done?

In a sense, the rise in designer drugs can be seen as a direct consequence of the “war on drugs.” While illicit substances remain criminalized (and users risk a prison sentence), there is nothing that can be done about designer drugs that flout the existing law aside from legislative change. The problem is that the legal system has been consistently unable to keep up with the production of new designer drugs, which is essentially vindicated by the huge increase in their numbers shown in the U.N. figures. If one drug is made illegal, another formula is produced to temporarily resolve the issue. At the same time, the users are exposed to a new collection of unknown risks, but it doesn’t matter to the illicit chemists. They make their money regardless of how many people die.

It’s been called for numerous times recently, but a rethinking of current drug policy may be the best solution. The criminalization of illicit drug users leads them to “legal” options (albeit, only legal through what are essentially loopholes), which may expose them to more risk than the illegal drugs would have done in the first place. Instead of shipping drug users off to jail with no psychological treatment, lawmakers should help them find treatment. If nothing else, the rise of designer drugs should be a clear lesson to lawmakers: it doesn’t matter how many substances you make illegal, users will always find something new to try. The actual problem is that people consistently choose to take the substances, not the specific collection of inanimate chemicals. And it goes without saying that the users need help (so they don’t constantly expose themselves to those risks), not jail-time.