Local view: Demystify synthetic demons by focusing on effects, not chemicals

Mark Schneiderhan, Duluth News Tribune
Bath salts
A display of bath salts for sale at Last Place on Earth in Duluth in May 2011. The legal alternatives to drugs are amphetamine-like stimulants. File / News Tribune

I applaud the News Tribune’s coverage of the synthetic-drug epidemic ravaging our community, particularly the April 26 story headlined, “Synthetic drugs threaten shelter’s safe haven.” The article stressed how synthetic drugs are jeopardizing the housing needs, safety and well-being of many of my clients. As a medication-

management provider on a mental health-care team, I have witnessed both psychological and physical effects of synthetic-drug abuse and addiction in my clients.

There definitely has been more attention and resources devoted to helping people who are addicted to synthetics drugs. Since April 2011 there is anecdotal evidence that the number of people being screened for civil commitment because of synthetic drug use has significantly increased. In most cases, the police most likely were involved, because commitments are reserved for people not voluntarily seeking help.

It is widely known hallucinogenic and stimulant drugs can precipitate psychotic breaks that mimic schizophrenia. Thinking about synthetic drugs acting as marijuana, stimulants or as other hallucinogenics should alert us what behaviors to expect if someone is using such substances. Demystifying synthetics can help us understand how very dangerous and especially harmful these substances are to everyone, especially the most vulnerable, including people who are homeless or who have mental illness.

In other words, quoting what Emil Mazey said more than 67 years ago, if you see a bird (i.e., substance or user) that quacks like a duck, walks like a duck, has feathers and webbed feet like a duck and associates with ducks, it probably is safe to assume the bird is a duck.

It can take months or even years for a synthetic chemical molecule, once identified in a laboratory, to be listed on a state and/or federal controlled-

substance schedule for illegal substances. In 2011, the Minnesota Legislature enacted a state “analog” law similar to federal law to make it a felony to sell substances that have similar chemical structures and effects on the body as illegal substances.

So to be federally or state-

controlled, a substance must have a similar chemical structure to a known controlled drug, and it must cause dangerous known side effects similar to those caused by already-illegal drugs.

If the abuse of a legally obtained substance causes a person to have paranoia, intense cravings or hallucinations, why do we have to spend months or even years to chemically analyze it to prove it’s unsafe?

I propose a variance to the 2011 Minnesota law to replace the word “and” with “or,” allowing professionals to confirm whether a synthetic drug causes addiction and/or acts in the body like synthetic marijuana, amphetamine-like stimulants or synthetic non-analgesic opioids. These substances can cause a person to become paranoid; have auditory or visual hallucinations; develop intense cravings and withdrawal; demonstrate dangerous, bizarre, or erratic behaviors that are out of character; have dangerously high blood pressure and pulse rates; or go to the emergency room.

This new “or” variance would allow law enforcement, judicial branches, members of the medical community, concerned citizens and the state Board of Pharmacy to work collaboratively and quickly (within weeks, not months or years) to identify and deem unlawful the possession or sales of newly identified alleged substances.

There is good evidence that restricting access to a drug greatly reduces its use. Unfortunately, because it seems impossible to control the illegitimate manufacturers of these drugs, we as a community should take an active stance to quickly identify harmful new synthetic drugs as dangerous behavioral effects become known.

Then, after a substance has been identified, next steps can include obtaining professional testimony based upon the evidence and then using that testimonial evidence to make the substances illegal, thereby reducing the number of victims in the future who might be harmed by exposure to them.

Full community involvement is needed to make these efforts successful. I hope many concerned citizens start to get involved by attending a public hearing in Duluth on Friday sponsored by Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson. Hopefully the meeting will bring us closer to a plan of action to help mitigate this problem in our community.

Mark Schneiderhan is a board-certified psychiatric pharmacist and an associate professor in the College of Pharmacy at the University of Minnesota Duluth.

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