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New Federal Ban On Synthetic Drugs Already Obsolete

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Two synthetic drug blends tested in the last week by AIT labs. The active compounds, UR-144 and XLR-11, are not covered by the federal ban. Photos: Kevin Shanks/AIT Labs


A federal ban on synthetic drugs, signed into law by President Obama on July 9, was obsolete before the ink of his signature dried.


Drug formulations not covered by the law’s language, and almost certainly synthesized in direct response to legal pressure, are already on sale. If synthetics are supposed to be part of the War on Drugs, then this battle may already be lost.


“There are several compounds out there now, in mixtures that I’ve tested myself, that would not fall under this ban,” said Kevin Shanks, a forensic toxicologist at AIT Laboratories, an Indiana-based chemical testing company. “The law just can’t seem to keep up.”


The new law, officially known as the Synthetic Drug Abuse Prevention Act of 2012, comes in response to the growing popularity of compounds designed by chemists to mimic the effects of various illegal substances, particularly marijuana and amphetamines.


Sold legally for nominally non-consumptive purposes — brand names include Spice incense, Ivory Wave bath salts and Crystal Clean pipe cleaner — the synthetics are often more potent than the originals, and have been anecdotally linked to violent and psychotic episodes.


Regulating the synthetics has, however, proved exceedingly difficult. The range of possible chemistries is so vast that prohibitions on particular chemical structures can easily be evaded by molecular recombinations.


That’s been the case with existing state synthetic drug laws and a 2010 federal Drug Enforcement Administration ban, and the same will likely hold for the new law.


The law focuses on synthetic cannabinoids, outlawing 15 chemical structures. According to Shanks, this covers most of the compounds popular in the last few years, but law-evading chemistries have already appeared.


Somewhat perplexingly, said Shanks, the law cracks down on 2C, a relatively obscure class of psychedelic synthetics, but goes light on synthetic stimulants, known collectively and infamously as bath salts.


“The only two covered are MDPV and mephedrone,” he said, referencing the two stimulant chemicals named in the law. “In our casework here, we haven’t seen MDPV for quite a while. I’m seeing other compounds.”


In announcing the law’s passage, Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) called it “the final nail in the coffin for the legal sale of bath salts.”


“In this area of Indiana, we’re not seeing any of the classical compounds we’ve seen in the last year,” Shanks said. “We’re seeing the uncontrolled ones. I have no doubt they were designed specifically for that reason.”

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