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The Conundrum of Legal Classification and Prosecution of Synthetic Drugs


Watching the popular show, Drugs Inc., on the National Geographic Channel last night, I stumbled upon the relatively new but alarmingly prevalent subject of Synthetic Drugs.  Highly publicized within the last year due to several dramatic and horrendous public occurrences of misuse (and the dire consequences that followed) these new designer drugs include popular versions of Spice products, Bath Salts, and K2.  Drugs Inc. sheds a curious new light to the War on Drugs, examining the relationship between users, dealers, medical professionals, public awareness, local police, and federal agencies including the U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the Department of Homeland Security.  Of particular interest to me, unlike the firmly established legal definitions of drug use and legal punishments, was how the show documented law enforcement’s difficulty with both prosecuting and administrating control of the production and classification of these ever-evolving (chemically) synthetic drugs.

A brief history of synthetic drugs is essential to understand the complex battle faced by law enforcement agencies.  Synthetic marijuana, “K2 or Spice,” and “Bath Salts” are commonly sold on the internet and legally in retail outlets of all kinds from gas stations to head shops as “herbal incense” or “plant food.”  They are marketed under a wide array of vague pubic disclaimers that usually includes the statement, “Not for Public Consumption,” to hide and deceive the public of their true intended purpose and to avoid FDA regulatory oversight of the manufacturing process. (  Synthetic marijuana consists of plant food laced with synthetic cannabinoids (the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana) marketed to youth as a “legal” high similar to generic (and illegal) marijuana.  Bath Salts are marketed as synthetic cocaine and often contain amphetamines consisting of methylenedioxypvrovaleone (MDPV) and methylone known as substituted cathinones. (  Both products are merely semi-legal knockoffs of their intended effects to simulate a marijuana or cocaine high.  The problematic epidemic deepens as synthetic marijuana and bath salts are routinely manufactured overseas in the absence of quality control and devoid of governmental regulatory oversight.   On October 21, 2011 the DEA was authorized through an amendment made to the Controlled Substances Act, to legally classify a substance, including synthetic drugs, to Schedule 1 illegal drugs to avoid an “imminent hazard to the public safety.”  Bath salts are now in the Schedule 1 classification and several cannabinoids have been added to the list of illegal substances.  Herein lies the difficulty pertaining to legal administration of drug enforcement of synthetic drugs.  Clever manufacturers and chemists can easily change the synthetic makeup of these drugs, altering one slight ingredient to maintain the effects of the drug but skirting the current “authorized” list of illegal synthetic drug chemical components.  As soon as the DEA outlaws certain synthetic drugs, these semi-legal producers domestically and abroad can easily and cheaply change the chemical composition of the synthetic drug therefore continuing to “legally” produce their respective products.

Drugs Inc. followed a Kentucky law enforcement officer as he expressed his dismay for the fight in the battle against the sale of synthetic drugs.  He mentioned a longing for the “good all days” when officers were able to quickly assess and test a drug such a marijuana or cocaine found on a suspect.  However, as his team of undercover agents investigated a local adult store selling synthetic drugs, the problem of law enforcement became clear: a noticeable lack of resources for testing and classifying the massive variety of these synthetics.  The officer and his team confiscated over 3000 individual packets of a variety of synthetic drugs yet were unable, at the time, to make any arrests of the shop owners.  Every single individual packet of the synthetic drugs found in the shop had to go to the police laboratory to be tested for legal and illegal synthetic components.  This laborious process takes months and adds yet another layer of complexity to the prosecuting of synthetic drug distributors.  The officer mentioned that packets of the SAME PRODUCT could each test differently for the endless list of legal and illegal chemically synthetic components.  That means 3000 different reports and analysis for law enforcement officials to go through.  Costly and lengthy, this process greatly hinders law enforcement in their quest to classify old and new synthetic drugs in addition to complicating the work of the DEA to add and modify their list of illegal synthetic Schedule 1 drugs.

The DEA is facing an uphill battle in their continuation of the fight on synthetic drugs.  Concerned with the constantly evolving changing nature of synthetic drug components, law enforcement agencies both locally and federally will need increasing oversight, funds, and knowledge to combat this epidemic to further ensure public safety and the health of our youth.

Bibliography Office of National Drug Control Policy. n.d. 15 Auguest 2012. <>.


By Chase A.


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Filed under: Alcohol and Drugs, Featured · Tags: Bath Salts, cocaine, dea, marijuana, Spice, synthetic cannabis, synthetic marijuana, war on drugs

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