As many of you may know a new craze in drugs has been sweeping the US over the past couple years- synthetic drugs, sometimes called designer drugs, that are frequently being sold as bath salts or incense.
Basically- Bath Salts are any of a number of synthetic drugs, frequently sold as bath salts, glass cleaner, or insect repellent and as “not for human use” to get around US Analog, and other laws, that would make them illegal if sold as a recreational drug. Most commonly described as mimicking cocaine or methamphetamine, and less often, MDMA. They are frequently sold at head shos, corner stores, gas stations, liquor stores, and online. They are sold without any indication of what they contain, nor what their dosage is.
Herbal incense or smoking blends are a mixture of legal, smokable herbs/plant material, either sprayed, or soaked, with synthetic cannabinoids. There are many hundreds of synthetic cannabinoids in existence- invented by either the major pharmaceutical companies, or from research at universities. The cannabinoids themselves are incredibly potent- often with dosages in the low milligram range. Like cannabis- they are antagonists (or agonists) of the CB1 and CB2 receptors. Essentially they are synthetic marijuana, or more realistically, synthetic versions of pieces of the marijuana puzzle.
so first- a point I would like to make- these drugs have, overwhemingly, been most popular in areas where drug prohibition is strongest.
But back to the topic- responsibility. There are many levels of blame here.
One- is the users themselves. People willing to smoke, snort, or inject an unknown substance. Now, to be fair, especially with the “bath salts” – the drugs they are most commonly replacing- cocaine or methamphetamine, are often themselves very impure (try researching the health effects of levamisole which is increasingly common cut in cocaine). And again, these “bath salts” are often being used because of both societal, and low quality issues related to prohibition of the more common illicit substances.
Another- the Media. These substances have garnerd huge amount of coverage in the media. And more often then not, the media coverage has been long on sensationalism and short on facts. There is ample evidence that this coverage has done far more to increase interest in these substances then to curtail their use. And every drug user will tell you- they have been lied to so much about the evils of drugs that they no longer take any of these warnings seriously unless it comes from others who have actual experience with these substances.
Another- the sellers. To sell a drug to others- with no indication of what they contain, or how to properly and safely use them (and quite often without knowing yourself) is the epitomy of irresponsibility. But many shops were, and are, making thousands, and in some cases tens of thousands, of dollars a week. And despite bans of many of these substances- the sellers happily carry the new wave of products that contain not yet banned chemicals- choosing to follow the letter of the law rather then the intent. Maybe an ironic statement from me- someone who believes all drugs should be legal- but when you can’t even identify what the drug you are selling actually is you have crossed the line.
Another is the manufacturers of these blends and bath salts. All too often it seems they have no interest in the drugs, or their users, but only in the huge profits to be made. It also often seems they have little knowledge or understanding of these substances, take no steps to ensure the quality of the chemicals they are using, often sourcing from the cheapest source they can find that assures them the product is “legal”, in other words- “not yet banned” , and doing no indepnedent lab analysis. Indeed- we are increasingly seeing prosecutions because these “legal” substances indeed contain already banned products.
And finally- our governments. While users and those in drug policy and harm reduction circles have all along been saying- you ban these chemicals- they will simply be replaced by new ones…our goverments continue to blindly ban a group of substances- only to have new ones on the shelves before the ink on the bans is dry. And more often then not, this leads to substances even more unknown, with greater potential negative effects.
So what is the government to do? Legalize, and regulate drugs. Prohibition is much like abstinence only sex education- it denies the basic human needs/wants, with disastorous results. Broadly speaking- we would not be in this mess if drugs were legal and regulated. If quality was assured, and the social stigma was removed- or placed on par with the social stigma of other drug abusers- smokers and alcoholics. If treatment was an option for those that need it- not just those looking to defer a prison sentence.
And more narrowly- a lot of these issues could have been avoided if age restrictions had been placed on their sale. If there had been requirements for identifying the contents, concentration, and dosage information. If basic scientific studies had been done. And if basic warnings had been required- that legal does not mean safe and that the short, and long term effects of these substances unknown.
The reality is research chemicals/ designer drugs have seen relatively widespread use for going on 3 decades now with minimal problems. I’ll ne the first to admit- a portion of the problem seems to be related to a switch from more psychedelic types of drugs to stimulant types. And also the arrival of synthetic marijuana- with the often brutal prohibtion of the actual plant coupled with it being the most popular illict drug in the world- created the perfect storm.
One thing is clear- the demand for altering ones mind has been in no way diminished by decades of prohibition. And prohibition continues to cause more problems then it solves. It is time to stop trying the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.
It is time to follow the lead of many of other countries; to realize prohibition is unsustainable both financially and morally, and move towards a program of harm reduction. Accept that whether it is alcohol, marijuana, or cocaine- people will use these substances. So strive to ensure they have honest information, a safe supply, a safe way to use, and help available when and if they need it.