Don't let that label fool you. What you've maybe been hearing referred to as "new psychoactive substances" are only "new" insofar as they represent the most recent wave of mind-altering laboratory drugs to flood today's global online market for so-called legal highs. Some of these substances are indeed novel, sure, though many others are not "new" inventions whatsover. They've simply been laying dormant until time inevitably comes to replace the newest banned drug.
Either way, the rate at which these designer narcotics are being deliberately tweaked, multiplied, and strewn across the Dark Web's one-stop pharmacies is so outpacing existing international drug regulations that officials are scrambling more than ever to try and figure out how the hell to tackle the problem, if in fact it can actually be tackled.
That's one of the big takeaways from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime 2013 World Drug Report (PDF). The global drugs assesment found that use of traditional illicit drugs—cocaine, heroin, cannabis, etc.—around the world has "remained stable" through 2012. Yet it casts in dire terms a dramatic rise in the production, sale, and consumption of new psychoactives. Never before, it seems, has the murkiness of "legal" highs placed the growing number of designer drugs, and all those who make, sell, and consume the stuff, so far beyond the grasp of international controls. At the end of 2009, UN member states reported 166 designer drugs. By mid-2012 that number had jumped to 251. That's more than the number (234) of currently illegal drugs, and for all we know is an almost comically conservative estimate.
To make some sense of the new psychoactive boom, here are some of the key concepts, drug classes, figures, lesser-known players, events, and assorted oddities that make the legal-highs marketplace the booming hive of postcapitalist, virtually unregulated e-commerce that it is in 2013. This guide is by no means comprehensive—at the rate synthetics are being cranked out and eaten up, how could this sort of thing ever be finished? But it you're looking to place where we are, how we got here, and where the future of brain-melting synthetic substances may be heading, take this dose.
Number of new psychoactive drugs that American (bio)chemist, psychopharmacologist, and all-around psychedelic high priest Alexander Shulgin predicts will be available by 2050.
A compound whose chemical structure is similar to that of another compound, save for one differing property. Simple enough, right?
If only. Even before the online research chemical (RC) and legal high scene exploded in earnest in 2008, "analogue" had for the UN and its major signatories become synonymous with any new drug that was essentially identical in structure and effect to an illicit drug but for one chemical distinction. The irony is that thanks to this subtle, albeit crucial structural tweak the new substance, the analogue, might end up carrying far greater health risks for consumsers than the illegal drug itself. And yet it's just not the same as the banned drug. The analogue, in other words, is legal.
Well, sort of. In the US, efforts to thwart this workaround were first outlined in the Federal Analog Act of 1986, which amended the Controlled Substance Act of 1970 so as to classify any analogue of a controlled substance that's intended for human consumption as a Schedule 1 drug, meaning the government considers it to be of zero medical worth and highly abusable to boot. Other countries have adopted similar legislation, though the workaround appears all the more rampant today as designer drug makers, dealers, and users alike the world over continue taking the legal high underground to dizzying new heights. The analogue is the their trump card.
Oh, the UN just banned Drug X? That's cute. In a week there will be four, five, maybe a half dozen "new" substances to take its place.