There Will Always Be More Drugs

Even if we could get a handle on conventional drugs, there would be new ones.
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Target practice on the USS Underwood, patrolling international waters near Panama, where U.S. Army troops, Air Force pilots, and Navy ships outfitted with Coast Guard counternarcotics teams are routinely deployed to chase drug smugglers. (Dario Lopez-Mills / AP)

A trillion dollars deep and arguably no further forward, the war on drugs continues to meet new fronts. Only recently have designer drugs taken hold in forms that effectively mimic the physiologic effects of the substances we've spent decades and lives and fortunes to eliminate. The target moves perpetually faster. Vaughan Bell at The Guardian writes that almost daily new designer substances seem to be appearing in online marketplaces. In the last year in the U.K. alone there were 73 new psychoactive synthetic drugs found on the market. 

At that rate demand should easily outpace capacities for detection, much less effective prohibition. Bell writes:

These drugs have hit the headlines under names such as Spice, K2, mephedrone and M-Cat, but there are hundreds more. They are sold euphemistically as "bath salts", "incense" or "research chemicals", and don't get regulated, at least not at first, because they are labeled as "not for human consumption." Unlike previous generations of legal highs that were about as recreational as a slap in the face, they actually work. They get you high.
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Feb 11, 2013. Hypodermic syringes in Myanmar. The city of Myitkyina is known for having one of the highest concentrations of drug addicts in the world. The Kachin Baptist Convention, an evangelical group with over 300 churches in the state, says nearly 80 percent of ethnic Kachin youth are addicts. Their drug of choice is heroin. (Gemunu Amarasinghe / AP)


Britain has taken to preemptively banning suspicious substances like Benzo Fury and NBOMe before they've been proven to be harmful (or safe), at least temporarily while they can be tested. In the U.S. they can go unregulated until people start falling over or eating one another.

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Bodies after drug gang warfare in Acapulco, 2012 (Bernandino Hernandez / AP)


Is it the militant prohibition of traditional drugs that drives addicts and abuse-prone people into the market for "not for human consumption" chemicals? Sure. It's also a root of violence and warfare. Still to condemn the drug war as a battle that cannot be won is not a new or useful insight -- though valid when defining victory in terms of bad guys arrested or substances confiscated. Beneficial metrics of progress are those that reinforce maximizing well-being and minimizing loss in a world of which drugs will always be a part.

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May 19, 2013. The burning body of a man lies next to the shell of a vehicle allegedly belonging to the Knights Templar drug gang, near La Ruana, Mexico, after police and the Mexican army opened fire on a convoy of the Knights Templar when they tried to enter the town. (La Ruana Community Police / AP)


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James Hamblin, MD, is a senior editor at The Atlantic. He writes the health column for the monthly magazine and hosts the video series If Our Bodies Could Talk.

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