A New Global Drug Problem

The United Nations warned in a report released Monday that permissive new drug laws permitting the use of recreational marijuana in the American states of Colorado and Washington are in violation of international laws and could endanger public health.

During a press conference in London, Raymond Yans, president of the United Nations’ drug-monitoring body, the International Narcotics Control Board, said that recently passed laws in Colorado and Washington were nothing short of pathways “for recreational use.”

The world has a growing drug problem, and much of the drugs are legal.

The proliferation of both traditional garden-variety illicit drugs and high-end, pharmaceutically complex drugs – as well as the opening of previously closed markets, has officials from Brussels to New York in a tizzy.

In the United States, dispensaries in California are already supplying large quantities of potent medical marijuana to anyone with a “condition” requiring treatment. The conditions range widely — from serious cancer-related issues, to glaucoma to things like stress, leading some to claim they’re recreational outlets masquerading as medical help centers. California has so far rejected attempts to pass recreational legalization laws, but in places like the Bay Area police rarely, if ever, crack down on people smoking marijuana in the open.

In Europe and other parts of the world it’s often synthesized chemical cocktails that are leading to spikes in overdoses and medical ailments.

As The Moscow Times reported this week, Europe’s regulatory environment isn’t particularly stringent. A form of “synthetic marijuana” known generically as “spice” is making the rounds and generating hundreds of millions in profits. The biggest problem isn’t the chemistry, however, it’s the law. Spice relies primarily on a synthetic compound called “quinolin-8-yl 1-pentyl-1H-indole-3-carboxylate.” Imported mostly from Asia, it can be lethal, but a loophole in Moscow’s laws makes banning it virtually impossible, The Moscow Times reports. The compound has been linked to kidney failure and acute coronary syndrome.

Estonia, meanwhile, was revealed to have an overdose rate roughly five times higher than the E.U. average. In a report issued last month by the Europe Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addictions, the tiny country led E.U. nations with 160 overdose deaths last year, mostly from a synthetic form of heroin called China White, a 21-percent increase over the previous year.

The news from Estonia and Russia is indicative of a trend the I.N.C.B. warned about – the proliferation of so-called “designer drugs” throughout Europe and much of the world. The report said these “legal highs” – many of them dangerous — are appearing in European markets at the rate of about one per week: 49 in 2011.

They’re often advertised as natural and harmless like plant foods, supplements or brain-boosting cocktails. But regulators say they’re anything but. The Independent reported that in 2010, 43 people died from a substance known as mephedrone, or “miaow, miaow” on the streets.

These trends highlight what a recent piece in the Saratogian argued was a trend away from traditional drug use of marijuana, cocaine and heroin and toward legal, pharmaceutically produced drugs. In the United States, abuse of these over-the-counter legal highs is 40 percent higher than for previous generations.

From the Saratogian:

“There are so many more drugs out there than there used to be,” says Professor Richard Miech, a University of Colorado sociologist who has conducted studies into how and why today’s adolescents are switching from marijuana to the medicine cabinet in pursuit of narcotic nirvana.

So even as U.N. regulators fuss about pot-smoking hippies in the United States, Europe is grappling with the effects of chemical narco-mania. Two weeks ago, the Trans European Drug Information Project issued what it called a “red alert” after an Australian man essentially beat himself to death while high on a substance called “25I-NBOMe,” which was being sold on the market as LSD.

It’s not that traditional drugs have fallen by the wayside. Far from it. In Norway this week, even as the country’s Health Minister admitted that the rate of overdoses (294 of roughly 10,000 heroin addicts died in 2011) was “shamefully” high, he advocated allowing addicts to smoke the substance as a way to curb deaths and increase overall safety when using. Norway, which has stringent anti-(tobacco)smoking laws, also has one of Europe’s highest drug-related mortality rates.

Next week all of these matters are going to be discussed at the first-ever United Nations meeting where officialdom will discuss how to develop a coordinated response to both the proliferation of new and increasingly hazardous drugs, and the parallel easing of restrictions on traditional drugs in certain places.


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