The Emerging Threat of Synthetic Drugs

Public health and law enforcement agencies across the country are seeing the emergence of synthetic drug use, especially among young people. While the harms of these types of drugs are not yet fully understood, we need to join together to keep these substances out of the hands of our youth.

Recently, I joined officials from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and the Department of Health and Human Services to announce the results of the largest annual survey on youth drug use in the United States. NIDA’s annual Monitoring the Future study, which surveys more than 46,000 teens in over 400 public and private schools across the United States, is a vital source of information about the types of substances young people are using, as well as their attitudes and perceptions regarding substance use, including alcohol, tobacco, and illegal drugs.

Spice - synthetic marajuanaThis year’s data revealed some troubling new trends, including startling new information showing an emerging threat of so-called synthetic drugs, which have been marketed as “legal” alternatives to marijuana. According to the survey, one in nine high school seniors has used synthetic marijuana marketed as “K2” and “spice” in the past year. That means synthetic marijuana now ranks as the second most frequently used illegal drug among high school seniors, after marijuana.

Poison Control Centers operating across the nation have reported over 5,500 calls relating to synthetic marijuana as of October 31, 2011. That’s almost double the number received in all of 2010. State and local public health departments note that these drugs cause serious adverse health effects, including agitation, anxiety, nausea, vomiting, tachycardia (fast, racing heartbeat), elevated blood pressure, tremor, seizures, hallucinations, and paranoid behavior. 

Making matters worse, these drugs are often marketed as “legal” substances. They are sometimes labeled as “herbal incense” and sold in small pouches or packets over the Internet, in tobacco and smoke shops, drug paraphernalia shops, gas stations, and even convenience stores.

To address this emerging challenge, the Drug Enforcement Administration recently used their emergency regulatory authority to temporarily ban the sale of chemicals used to manufacture K2 and spice. The Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) has also convened officials from across the federal government at the White House to share data and coordinate a federal response to the threat of synthetic drugs. We are also working with Congress on this issue. Recently, the House of Representatives passed legislation that would permanently ban the chemicals used to make synthetic drugs, including those marketed as “bath salts.”

Over the past several decades, we have also seen a concerted effort by parents, the private sector, and public health and safety institutions to protect young people from harmful substances through a balanced combination of education, treatment, and enforcement. Nationwide media campaigns have encouraged young people to make healthy choices by rejecting drug use. Local community coalitions have formed across the nation to address local threats with local solutions. Law enforcement agencies have targeted the supply of substances, making them more expensive and less available to teens. Not only have these efforts substantially reduced the number of young people hurt by drugs, they have also changed the culture surrounding these substances. This is important because when society disapproves of drug use, and when its harms are accurately and frequently communicated to young people, fewer will begin using drugs. For example, the rate of cigarette smoking goes down when the acceptability of smoking goes down. The percentage of students reporting daily cigarette use has declined significantly along with the percentage of students who think smoking is acceptable.

Preventing drug use before it ever begins is, after all, the most cost-effective way to address our drug problem. Successful prevention means fewer people will develop substance use disorders and that the consequences of substance use—including the costs of health care, treatment, and public safety—will also decrease.

Directed by science, the Obama Administration takes a comprehensive approach to the substance use problem. Research repeatedly shows adult influencers as the most powerful force in the lives of young people. We will continue working with local communities to decrease substance use rates across the nation. In the meantime, we hope you will join us in making the United States healthier and safer.

-Gil Kerlikowske
Office of National Drug Control Policy

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