Declaring Novel Drugs Illegal Sends Interest Plummeting
In the 21st century, America and other countries around the world have seen a sharp rise in the production of novel, mind-altering substances that may not fall under the jurisdiction of current drug laws. In a study published in May 2015 in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence, researchers from Sweden’s Centre for Social Research on Alcohol and Drugs examined the impact that a new illegal classification has on the popularity of “bath salts” and other new or novel substances with a potentially dangerous mind-altering effect.
U.S. Drug Laws
In the U.S., a federal law called the Controlled Substances Act determines the legal status of essentially all drugs and medications capable of altering human consciousness and brain or body function. This law groups all such substances into five classes or schedules organized by medical usefulness and relative ability to trigger problems with abuse or addiction. Substances with no officially defined medical usefulness and a considerable abuse/addiction risk fall under the highly restrictive Schedule I classification; examples of Schedule I drugs include heroin, the stimulant/hallucinogen MDMA (Molly, Ecstasy), marijuana and all other forms of cannabis, cathinone (the active ingredient in the plant drug khat) and the hallucinogens LSD and psilocybin. Schedule II covers medically useful substances with a high abuse/addiction risk, including most opioid medications, certain sedative-hypnotic medications and ADHD medications that contain any form of amphetamine.
Substances with a less restricted Schedule III classification include the opioid medication buprenorphine, anabolic steroids, certain fast-acting sedative-hypnotic medications and the anesthetic ketamine. Schedule IV substances include sedative-hypnotic medications called benzodiazepines, the opioid medications tramadol and pentazocine, the wakefulness-promoting medication modafinil and “Z-drugs” such as zolpidem (Ambien) and eszopiclone (Lunesta). Substances with a relatively low-restriction Schedule V classification include certain codeine-containing cough medicines, pregabalin and certain other seizure medications, opium-containing diarrhea medications and the appetite suppressant pyrovalerone.
New Drug Compounds
Most people have at least a passing familiarity with “bath salts,” a group of substances that contain mind-altering synthetic cathinones designed to mimic the effects of the naturally occurring cathinone found in khat (a Schedule I controlled substance with a high capacity to produce abuse/addiction). Some of these substances are specifically banned under the terms of federal drug law. However, manufacturers of bath salts and a range of other substances actively seek to make their products “legal” by creating new formulations that don’t specifically fall under existing drug statutes. In the equivalent of an ongoing game of “whack-a-mole,” federal authorities try to identify and ban new substances as quickly as possible, while illicit/illegal drug manufacturers try to create even newer substances that continue to technically evade the jurisdiction of existing law.
Effect of an Illegal Status
In the study published in Drug and Alcohol Dependence, researchers from the Centre for Social Research on Alcohol and Drugs used monitoring of a drug-oriented Swedish Internet forum to roughly gauge the impact that a new illegal status has on the popularity of modern mind-altering substances not previously regulated under existing drug laws. Specifically, the researchers looked at the popularity of eight drugs that received illegal status in Sweden relatively recently, including the bath salt ingredients MDPV and methylone (also recently banned in the U.S.), the stimulant-hallucinogen 6-APB and the hallucinogen 4-HO-MET. They based their estimates on the analysis of 45,000 posts made by users of the forum in question.
The researchers concluded that all eight of the substances under consideration experienced a “drastic” decline in popularity among the forum’s pro-drug members that roughly coincided with the substances’ new illegal status under Swedish law. After reviewing all of the possible factors that might explain this phenomenon, they also concluded that a new illegal status directly contributed to the plummeting popularity of seven of the eight drugs.
The study’s authors believe that a shift in attention may explain the declining popularity of newly illegalized drugs. In other words, when a substance receives an illegal status, users tend to move on to other substances not currently classified as illegal. They believe that the methods used during the study may give researchers, public health officials and drug enforcement officials a unique and practical way to make spot assessments of the consumption patterns of modern synthetic drugs and other substances.