The emergence of new psychoactive substances (NPS) – often called “synthetic drugs,” “legal highs,” or “research chemicals” – pose a number of challenges for policymakers, media covering these issues, medical and social service providers, and people who use these substances.
Unfortunately, current media and policy responses to NPS – a broad category that includes everything from synthetic cannabinoids such as “K2”, to synthetic opioids such as fentanyl, to traditional plants such as kratom – have been largely fueled by misinformation rather than facts. For example, in New York City, concerns about synthetic cannabinoids led to misleading media coverage and targeted policing in communities of color and among the homeless, missing a critical opportunity to lead with harm reduction and public health strategies instead of criminalization.
These substances often come on the market as legal alternatives to illicit drugs. In the U.S., they are routinely banned, leading chemists to come up with slightly new formulations to evade existing laws. This cat-and-mouse game has led to a proliferation of these substances, whose potential harms (and benefits) are largely unknown.
Seth Fitzgerald from The Drug Classroom attended an important conversation about novel psychoactive substances on the evening of June 9th – 10th in New York City hosted by the Drug Policy Alliance. At New Strategies for New Psychoactive Substances: A Public Health Approach, the discussion included what is currently known about these substances, strategies for intervening when use becomes harmful, exploring new forms of drug regulation, and examining how messaging and media about NPS can become more constructive. The gathering laid the foundation for a series of recommendations for policymakers, medical and social service providers, researchers, and media.