While police forces have a relatively easy time enforcing laws related to traditional narcotics, they are constantly playing a game of catch-up when it comes to new synthetic drugs, which are always evolving.
According to a sobering report in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, federal officials at the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) are having a difficult time applying criminal charges to people who are producing drugs so new that they haven’t even been outlawed yet.
Observers claim that drug producers have an endless supply of chemicals and can combine these substances in infinite ways to create unique methods of getting high.
And, as the designer synthetic drugs seem to change every week, state legislators can’t act quickly enough to pass laws making these new substances illegal. As a result, police are perpetually adjusting to shifting strategies in the drug production community.
Gone are the days when police only had to worry about simple drug arrests, like marijuana possession, and their primary concerns were three or four traditional substances, like heroine, cocaine, and methamphetamine.
Now, the DEA employees a small army of chemists in a lab in suburban Washington, D.C. These chemists’ task is to stay ahead of the drug producers by anticipating the next popular chemical substances before they hit the streets.
This so-called “war on synthetic drugs” has incredibly high stakes, as many of the newer drugs are chemically unstable or simply dangerous, which has created a tangible public health scare.
In addition, drug dealers are able to sell many of these synthetic drugs online under the guise of regular household products. Bath salts, for example, are regularly sold online and used by some addicts to create a dangerous multiple-day high.
And, while bizarre synthetic drugs like bath salts gain plenty of media attention, synthetic variations on more traditional drugs like marijuana and cocaine are giving police bigger headaches.
As of this writing, 43 states had passed legislation banning some of the chemicals in synthetic marijuana, or other synthetic drugs. Legislation for other trendy drugs, though, has been slow to develop. Thus far, only Florida has passed legislation banning the sale of bath salts.
The slow pace of legislation has frustrated police officers, who often have to release suspected criminals when the substances found in raids turn out to be legal, despite their obviously dangerous properties.
In addition, police often face long delays when they try to test the chemical compounds that compose seized drugs. Local police labs are often overrun with these requests, which may allow potential drug dealers to go free.
In response to these trends, some states have proposed extremely broad legislation that would ban any substances that are remotely similar to drugs that are currently illegal.
Such laws, however, have faced strong criticism from observers who suggest that excessively broad laws could be complicated to enforce, and may prove to be unconstitutional. Because of these competing views, state legislatures may be a long way from adequately tackling the problem of synthetic drugs.