Designer Drugs – An Unsafe Loophole
The phrase “designer drug” was first coined by police officers in the 1980’s. It refers to a drug whose chemical makeup has been altered slightly in an attempt to make it legal. The idea is that the drug will have the same or similar effects as a currently illegal drug, but will not technically be illegal because the exact chemical structure has not been banned. The first designer drugs to hit the market were synthetic forms of the narcotic heroin.
In the US, the production, sale and use of any kind of drug is regulated by the Controlled Substance Act of 1970. The only exceptions are tobacco, caffeine and alcohol, probably because they were already so widespread at the time the legislation was written. The act divides drugs into different classes, or “schedules,” based on their potential for abuse and medical usefulness. The original phrasing of the CSA was quite specific about the names of controlled substances, allowing people to use designer drugs as a legal loophole.
However, in 1986 the Federal Analog Act was added to the CSA. This law preemptively bans designer drugs by classifying any drug that is “chemically similar” to an illegal drug as illegal. This ban does not apply to drugs with a valid medical use. For example, some of the stronger pain medications prescribed by doctors are chemically similar to illegal drugs. However, because they have a valid use, they are not banned in the US.
In the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, designer drugs found a new marketplace: the internet. Commonly called “research chemicals,” they are most often hallucinogenic drugs chemically similar to mescaline or psilocybin. Sellers of these drugs often claim that they are not intended to be consumed by humans and are therefore legal. This has not proven to be an effective defense, however.