The expanding universe of synthetic drugs

published on May 20, 2017 in The Economist

From “legal highs” to fentanyl, there are more drugs on offer than ever before

INSIDE a brightly lit shop in Amsterdam half a dozen people inspect the wares. Alongside the bongs, vibrators and heart-shaped key rings in its glass displays are rows of small silver packets emblazoned with names such as “Herbal Speed”, “Trip E” and “Liquid Bliss”. Four capsules of “Space Trips” will “take you to the moon and back” for €12.50 ($13.30). There are 160 coffee shops in this city where marijuana can be bought and smoked perfectly legally. But as these shiny packets bear witness, there is also a thriving market for “legal highs”, synthetic alternatives to drugs such as ecstasy or cocaine.

Humans have always sought to intoxicate themselves. For millennia they had only what could be reasonably easily coaxed from poppies, grapes, mushrooms and the like to help them in their endeavours. In the 19th century chemistry allowed the chemical compounds that had made such things worth seeking out to be purified and marketed. New drugs from the laboratory, such as ether and nitrous oxide, found a role in “laughing gas” parties and “ether frolics” well before they were pressed into medical service as anaesthetics.

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