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Are Synthetic Drugs Legal?

Lately, it feels like almost every week there’s a terrifying new synthetic drug causing deadly overdoses and a panicked scramble to identify and counteract it. And there’s a good reason for that feeling since it’s basically true.

In the last decade, the synthetic drug market has exploded, with new substances being pushed out onto the streets faster than they can be identified, let alone be effectively policed and legislated. It’s estimated that from 2009 and 2014 alone, researchers cataloged somewhere between 200 and 300 new synthetic drugs.

As if the sheer amount of drugs weren’t difficult enough to keep up with, there’s also the legal gray area they create, since many synthetic variations of illegal drugs are not included on any federal or state schedules for controlled substances.

So are synthetic drugs actually legal? Are these legal synthetic drugs any safer? And what does this mean when comparing a legal designer drug to an illegal one, like fentanyl?

What Are Synthetic Drugs?

The specific definition for a synthetic or “designer” drug is a lab-created substance made to be an “analog” or copy of a “parent drug” that mimics the same effects but is different enough to avoid being classified as illegal or detected in most standard drug tests.

In the early 2000s, designer drugs were typically classified as club drugs, meaning substances like LSD, ecstasy, crystal meth, and other drugs primarily abused by young adults at clubs, concerts, and parties. However, with each new wave of synthetic opioids, steroids, cannabinoids, sedatives and more, this label no longer applies.

And while there is indeed a huge variety of different synthetic substances, from hallucinogenic amphetamines like “bath salts” to potent opioids like fentanyl, they all share similar traits that have contributed to their rise in number and popularity in recent years:

  • They are easier to obtain than the real deal. In fact, synthetic cannabis is often available for legal purchase in gas stations or head shops. Even illegal drugs like fentanyl can be legally mailed to the U.S. from countries like China due to a legal loophole in the global postal system.
  • They are cheaper to make than the naturally-derived drugs they imitate, such as heroin or cocaine.
  • They are much stronger, so illegal manufacturers do not have to create as much of it and can use it to cut other, more expensive drugs.

On top of this, they are also incredibly inconsistent in their chemical makeup, as they are assembled from a sometimes random assortment of chemicals in an illegal lab, which means that it is impossible to know the exact components of any given dose. This means that someone who buys these drugs can never know exactly what they’re getting, which greatly increases the risk of an overdose. It’s also why synthetic drugs are so difficult to legally regulate, and why many of them are technically legal.

How Dangerous Drugs Stay Legal

Some of the first synthetic drugs to become popular and exist in an unclear state of legality were synthetic cannabinoids, a sort of imitation marijuana. Commonly known as Spice and K2, these drugs promised the same effects as marijuana, but were chemically distinct from it, meaning that they could not be classified as illegal the way that marijuana is.

Scheduling” drugs, or determining their medical use, danger, and potential for abuse, and then classifying them accordingly takes a fairly long time and creating laws to ban substances takes even longer. This is what lets drugs like Spice exist in a space where it was known to be a drug on par with marijuana, but still available for perfectly legal purchase.

So does any of this mean that Spice is safer to use than marijuana? In short, no.

In fact, Spice and other synthetic drugs like it are, if anything, significantly more dangerous because they have to keep changing their chemical composition to stay ahead of what is known as “Analog Laws.”

Analog Laws were created as a way to combat the speed of new synthetic drug appearances compared to the slowness of scheduling. These laws state that if a substance is found to be a clear analog or copy of a controlled or illicit substance, then it is subjected to the same laws and penalties of the drug it’s copying.

Because of this, legally-sold drugs like Spice have to constantly switch up their ingredients, which makes them and other synthetic drugs like them much more dangerous than their analogs, with incredibly unpredictable side effects.

Another loophole these synthetic drugs exploit, most notably bath salts in this instance, is to be sold as a product labeled “not for human consumption,” instead of claiming to be everything from plant food to incense. Lawmakers cannot make jewelry cleaner illegal, and when bath salts are sold under the pretense of being just that, it makes regulating them or enforcing the laws surrounding them, extremely difficult.

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Banning Synthetic Drugs: A Game of “Whack-a-Mole”

The other main way that synthetic drugs will be, while not exactly legal, still not technically illegal is that a drug cannot officially be enforced as illegal if it hasn’t been chemically-identified, and with new drugs cropping up faster than experts can keep up with them, this has become a significant problem.

Organizations like the DEA are constantly playing catch-up, identifying substances and banning not just the drugs themselves but the chemicals that make them up as well, only to have illegal manufacturers tweak the chemical structure, call it something new, and start the process all over again. It can seem like a never-ending fight where as soon as one drug is successfully banned, eight more almost exactly like it but just different enough are there to take its place.

Because federal bans can take such a long time and are difficult to effectively enforce from state to state, much of the progress against this problem is happening on a statewide level.

For example, the state of New York has vastly expanded their list of prohibited drugs and chemicals based on what substances are being most frequently used in creating synthetic drugs, as well as new regulations that allow them to charge establishments selling synthetic drugs with possession of an illicit substance. The hope is that these measures will make it more difficult for distributors to avoid the law just by changing up the ingredients in drugs like bath salts.

Synthetics are Here to Stay—For Now

According to the DEA’s 2017 National Drug Threat Assessment, synthetic and designer drugs continue to pose a major threat due to the fact that they are, “relatively inexpensive and continue to be available from shops, street sales, and the Internet, making them accessible to anyone who seeks them.”

Unfortunately, until better, faster, and more efficient ways to track and regulate synthetic drugs are developed, it is unlikely for there to be any significant positive change in the fight against keeping people safe from the dangers of designer drugs.

If you or a loved one is struggling with an addiction to any kind of synthetic drugs, the skilled and compassionate staff at Ocean Breeze Recovery can get you or your loved one on the path to getting sober and taking back your life. Call (877) 704-0816 now to get more information from one of our addiction specialists, or contact us online.


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