Law Enforcement Struggling To Fight Back Against Rise of Synthetic Drugs

By McCarton Ackerman 02/19/14

Despite hundreds of synthetic drugs flooding the United States, law enforcement agencies are hamstrung by bureaucratic inertia and a lack of legal authority.


The overwhelming variety of synthetic drugs flooding the market has been leaving law enforcement scrambling to keep up. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) statistics report that five new synthetic drugs are introduced to the U.S. market every month; with more than 200 kinds identified by the DEA in 2009, that would mean there are roughly 500 synthetic drugs being distributed at present, resulting in a billion-dollar industry within the U.S.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Chief Ed Low confirmed that his organization sees the drugs “on a regular basis...daily,” while DEA assistant Special Agent in Charge Bruce Goldberg believes that "most of the chemical portion of these drugs is coming in from China.” Customs and Border Protection made 212 synthetic drug seizures in 2012, but with many compounds not yet identified, it’s impossible for many of the questionable packages to be seized.

Low admitted that “if something does not test positive or if U.S. Customs and Border Protection cannot articulate why a thing may not enter the United States, I don’t know that we have the legal authority to continue to hold it.” Once a compound is identified, Goldberg said it can take years for it to be added to a federal list of controlled substances and made illegal. Meanwhile, it takes drug chemists just weeks to change a single molecule and create an entirely new synthetic drug.

Although Congress has passed new laws that allow the DEA to temporarily place certain synthetically altered compounds on the scheduled drug lists for up to two years, the issue of convincing synthetic drug users of the potential consequences remains a separate problem. In 2012, there were nearly 470 emergency room visits in California alone related to synthetic drug use.

“Kids now, they are going to try those synthetic drugs and not wake up,” said ‘Rebecca,’ a former addict now in recovery. “And what an ultimate price to pay for experimenting with just maybe just coming of age, I’m not the judge of that. It’s much higher consequence and much higher risk and that is what is really scary.”

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.