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2012: The Year of Synthetic Drugs

Synthetic drugs have irrevocably changed the face of international drug dealing, while ushering in a new era of hysteria.

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Some of the victims were likely suffering overdoses of MDMA or other drugs, but last year a new twist on the cathinone molecular structure began to get serious traction in the states. To stay one jump ahead of the law, underground chemists began churning out large quantities of a different amphetamine variant with the tongue-twisting name of methylenedioxypyrovalerone, or MDPV. And what were EMTs and paramedics seeing in cases where the overdose drug could be identified as MDPV? Agitation, tachycardia, hallucinations, combative behavior, hypertension, chest pain, blurred vision—and several purported deaths. This synthetic cathinone was evidently capable of producing psychotic episodes requiring sedation. It all sounded eerily similar to the PCP overdoses of the 60s and 70s, when that dissociative veterinary anesthetic enjoyed a period of dubious notoriety.

So okay, spice and bath salts are not safe as milk. Neither are heroin and cocaine. Nothing comes risk-free. But are bath salts addictive? It only takes a couple of stern-faced pronouncements to this effect from the National Office of Drug Control Policy to set loose flaming battles over drug policy. But in this case, the evidence from animal research was not looking good by year’s end, as findings trickled out from several well-regarded university research labs.

Dr. Michael Taffe, working with the Committee on the Neurobiology of Addictive Disorders at Scripps Research Institute, has been researching these questions at his lab in La Jolla, California. “Yes,” says Taffe, referring to the cathinone compounds, “there is evidence that they are addictive.” But it’s not a simple story. Direct comparisons to methamphetamine can be misleading. “It has been shown that mephedrone is self-administered in animals at rates higher than meth,” according to Taffe. “And we’ve shown self-administration data for MDPV as well. But all we can really say is that there is evidence these drugs are self-administered in animals, just like you would expect for psychomotor stimulants.” In addition, there are indisputable hints of addictiveness at the cellular level. “Inhibiting the dopamine transporter is a classic effect of abused psychomotor stimulants like meth, perhaps the signature effect,” Taffe says, “and mephedrone and MDPV both have this action.”

So, the catch appears to be that some of these drugs are potentially addictive. The underground market lottery will determine whether any of those addictive chemicals end up in your packet.

Finally, are bath salts and spice drugs invisible to drug tests, as advertised? The answer is no, not any more. There are new drug tests out there that can detect many of the major ingredients in both bath salts and spice-style cannabis products. And that marks a major change that law enforcement hopes will cripple growth in this fast-moving industry.

“Increasingly, and especially in the U.S. military, testing firms are including these compounds in their methodology,” says Dr. Kroll. A company called RTI International is now marketing a new test kit, which makes it possible to detect a wide range of synthetically produced drugs. More drug test kit manufacturers are sure to ramp up production in the near future, but it is a costly effort. “Folks probably aren’t aware of how hard it is to develop methods to detect all of these compounds,” adds Kroll.

While bath salts originate primarily in Asia, bath salt precursor drugs are now being manufactured in Malaysia, West Africa, and Iran—places previously off the radar when it came to drug manufacture. UNODC Executive Director Yury Fedotove has written that the market for synthetic stimulants “has evolved from a cottage-type industry typified by small-scale manufacturing operations to more of a cocaine or heroin-type market with a higher level of integration and organized crime groups involved throughout the production and supply chain.“ Bath salts have become big business.

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