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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.
A common classification often used with medicinal and recreational drugs is “synthetic” versus “natural.” Despite the apparent face validity of “natural” drugs being less harmful, they are no less dangerous, and in some cases are more so, than their synthetic cousins. The individual using the substance, their set, setting, neurochemistry, along with the drug’s intrinsic properties must always be the prevailing determinants when evaluating a substance for ingestion. The Addictive Podcast deconstructs this common societal myth about what’s “best” to put in one’s body when it comes to drug type and origin.
Seth Fitzgerald from The Drug Classroom and addiction therapist Glen Marshall explore synthetic cannabinoids which were made popular in the media by their commercial name Spice, K2, along with many others. This class of substance appears to have a moderate potential for abuse as well as a high potential for undesirable and dangerous effects due to the widely varying mixture used to create the final products. Synthetic cannabinoids have resulted in a number of deaths and hospitalizations as a result of the extremely potent and unpredictable compounds used to make them as well as the varying and unregulated degree of each concentration. These drugs are inexpensive, targeted and vulnerable populations, and are difficult to detect making them another unintended consequence of prohibition based policies where more moderate compounds like cannabis are replaced with more potent and dangerous ones in the name of profit.
Synthetic cannabinoids appear to have a terrible safety profile and while an objective position is warranted in evaluating all drugs, there seems to be very little to warrant choosing these potentially deadly compounds over more benign substances like natural cannabis where casual or recreational use is concerned. The term “synthetic marijuana” and even its association with natural marijuana is a complete misnomer and should not be used as it promotes the belief that the two substances have similar effects and safety profiles which for more naive users may have deadly consequences. Glen also talks about the first step in quitting drugs and addiction as well as Students for Sensible Drug Policy and his recent moves in advocacy towards improving drug education in secondary schools.