Monday, October 5, 2009
Banning legal drugs
Fool’s errand or necessary evil?
In the cat-and-mouse game that is the designer drug industry, spinning new variations on old themes is the name of the game. When law enforcement and the courts decree a substance illegal for human use due to abuse potential—like the “date rape” drug GHB, banned several years ago in the U.S. and Britain—underground drug designers go to work on spinning molecular variations on the theme. When they hit on an acceptable “near-beer” equivalent, they can flood the market and reap another tidy illegal round of profits on, for example, GBL, which the body converts to GHB when consumed. That is, until law enforcement catches up with that one, and bans it, and then the cycle repeats itself.
The Analogue Drug Act of 1986 was designed to combat this dilemma in the United States by outlawing drugs “substantially similar” to any drug that is already illegal. However, “chemical experts disagree on whether a chemical is “substantially similar” in structure to another chemical—so much so that Federal Analogue Act litigation often degenerates into a “battle of experts,” which is founded more on opinion than on actual scientific evidence,” writes Gregory Kau in an article for the University of Pennsylvania Law Review. “One survey of Federal Analog Act jurisprudence discovered that courts sometimes considered a chemical’s two-dimensional structure rather than the three-dimensional structure as a factor; that courts sometimes ignored the difference in the number of atoms as a meaningful factor; and that courts even ignored quantitative “similarity analysis” results that pharmaceutical companies use to determine whether a chemical is structurally similar to another.”
Recently, Britain added itself to the list of nations that have banned several so-called “herbal highs,” mostly industrial chemicals or synthetic cannabinoids. In addition to GBL, or gamma-butyrolactone, the ban includes BZP, or benzylpiperazine, sold as a stimulant club drug similar to amphetamine. Both are already illegal in the U.S.
In addition, the British Home Office banned a substance known variously as Spice, Spice Gold, or Spice Diamond, which is sold as a legal herbal alternative to cannabis. The product was banned in Germany and France earlier this year. Over the past two years, tests at a German pharmaceutical company, and assays of Spice products seized by U.S. customs agents have confirmed the presence of several synthetic versions of natural chemicals found in marijuana. These cannabinoids include JWH-018, CP-47,497, and HU-210 in liquid form, which is then sprayed on herbal products. The chemicals in question currently find use only in medical research, and the extent to which they provide a high in the absence of THC is based on anecdotal reports, and varies widely.
GBL, a chemical solvent used as a paint stripper, is sometimes sold as “liquid ecstasy.” The amphetamine alternative BZP is used as a fertilizer and as a veterinary medicine. Both are now classified as Class C drugs like tranquilizers, possession of which can bring a two-year jail sentence.
Spice, or at least the synthetic cannabinoids the products contain, are now listed as Class B drugs, the same as marijuana, bringing with it the possibility of a five-year jail sentence.
In an attempt to gain a leap on underground drug designers, the British government has banned all drugs in the so-called piperazine family that includes BZP. This will likely motivate underground chemists to find a molecular family with similar effects to BZP.
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