Designer Drugs: Risky Synthetics Flood the Canadian Market

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Health Canada recently issued a warning regarding the dangers of psychoactive drugs, in particular synthetic blends that replicate the effects of controlled substances.

The development and distribution of synthetics falls within a legal grey area, and has sparked new debate about how the government should regulate this new “market.”

Without the safety measures associated with pharmaceutical quality control, synthetic psychoactive drugs like Acetyl Fentanyl are developed and sold with little knowledge regarding their safety or effects on users.  Psychoactive drugs impact brain functioning, and cause changes in mood and behavior; they are usually prescribed to treat physical and psychological disorders. Acetyl Fentanyl is a new, uncontrolled breed of pain killer, five times more powerful than heroin.  Combined with other opioids, it can be hard to detect in patients. Pharmaceutical studies suggest that in cases of pain-killer overdoses, high performance liquid chromatography or gas chromatography is required to identify its presence and quantity.  In the summer of 2013, the designer drug was found responsible for 10 deaths in Rhode Island.

Clinical research and testing has revealed that while some synthetic drugs contain relatively innocuous ingredients, their psychoactive effects are all too real. Usage can result in hallucinations, seizures, psychotic episodes, and in alarmingly increasing numbers, death. A particularly controversial debate has erupted over the wide-spread availability of synthetic marijuana, known as “spice” or “K2.” Early in 2013, CBC News discovered that despite being labeled as unfit for human consumption, the incense was actively promoted as smoke-able in stores across the country. Mired in a legal grey area, Canadian authorities have been slow to act on distributors of “spice” because its ingredients are technically legal.

Increasing number of legal problems

Across the border, authorities are also taking notice of a legally problematic and ever-expanding designer drug trade. In 2010, side effects of synthetic marijuana sent over 11,000 Americans to emergency rooms. In February of 2013, the US Centres for Disease Control issued a warning after linking “spice” with acute kidney injuries across several states.

In August of this year, New Zealand made international headlines with a proposal to legalize designer drugs.  The argument is that legalization will subject new drugs to rigorous pharmaceutical quality assurance measures and minimize their capacity for unintended, often deadly effects on users. Canada is watching closely to see how New Zealand’s new policy impacts the black market drug trade and whether a similar measure could be helpful in our own battle against risky designer drugs.

Do you think legalization is the answer for Canadians?