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A synthetic high

Lachlan Munro walks you through the known knowns, the known unknowns, and the unknown unknowns of synthetic drugs

Bryan Lewis Saunders: ‘Bath Salts’ (self-portrait)

Lately “synthetic” drugs have been making headlines all over the world. From the death of high school student Henry Kwan to the struggles of regulators to stay ahead of the drug producers, these new intoxicants are dominating the media cycle. But are these quasi-legal products as dangerous as the reports will have us believe? Or is this another example of exaggerated scaremongering similar to the reports in the early 2000s claiming that ecstasy took scoops out of the brain?

The short answer is that we have really have no idea.

It’s worth noting that the drugs being referred to under the label “synthetic” are no more synthetic than run of the mill speed, ecstasy or Panadol. Synthetic just seemed to be a word that evoked the right feelings of unfamiliarity and fear when reporting on these drugs so the media stuck with the label.

These drugs came about as an alternative to the high risks involved in the production and distribution of illegal drugs. With the expansion of the internet, wayward chemists learnt that by changing the chemical composition of illegal drugs, sometimes only by a single atom, they could get a product that gave people a comparable high but without being (technically) illegal. These products are sold as “bath salts”, “plant food” or “research chemicals”. And despite having names like “Purple Haze” or “Ivory Rush” they’re labelled as “not for human consumption” which allows them to avoid dealing with regulations normal foods and medicines are subject to.

…the difference between codeine (the stuff found in over the counter Nurofen Plus) and heroin is two small atomic changes.

Moving around a couple of atoms may seem like a trivial point. As long as it still gives a rush like cocaine and won’t get you thrown in prison, then no harm done. However a small change in the chemical composition of a drug can have massive effects on potency, duration and effects. As an example, the difference between codeine (the stuff found in over the counter Nurofen Plus) and heroin is two small atomic changes.

The concept of tweaking drug molecules to generate something with nearly the same effect isn’t new. Pharmaceutical companies have been fine-tuning their products for decades. Nearly every sleeping pill on the market is a slight variation on Valium, and most strong painkillers are based on morphine (including the heroin and codeine mentioned earlier).

The difference, though, is that the modified drugs put out by drug companies are put through the same battery of safety testing as any new medicine. They’re screened to determine new side effects, changes in necessary dosage and possible new toxicities. The drugs developed for bath salt and other designer drug products often hit the market with little to no testing. PMA, for example, is only a slight variation on MDMA (what most ecstasy tablets purport to be), but much more toxic, causing massive spikes in body temperature. PMA overdoses caused several deaths in the mid-2000s. Although PMA is now illegal, producers are coming up with new chemicals faster than they can be identified or tested, and products are very rarely labeled with the actual chemicals they contain.

So no one can claim that these drugs are inherently more dangerous than the illegal drugs that have been around for years. Nor can anyone say they’re a safer alternative. The only thing anyone can say with any confidence is at the moment we don’t know.

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