Will Synthetic Drugs Change Drug Markets?

Synthetic drugs are becoming more common in markets previously composed entirely of drugs that originate from plants (e.g., heroin, cocaine, marijuana). In Estonia, the powerful opioid fentanyl is now more widely used than heroin. In the U.S., synthetic cannabinoids have become more widely used by adolescents, and as everyone knows, we also have an epidemic of addiction to prescription opioids.

It’s an intriguing exercise to speculate what the world of drugs and drug policy would be like if synthetic drugs end up supplanting the old agriculturally-derived standbys. There would be no programs of crop eradiction and international interdiction. Law enforcement efforts might be entirely domestically focused. This might be a more just world of drugs in that the costs of drugs and drug control would fall at home rather than being exported overseas (Although on Twitter, policy maven Alejandro Hope pointed out that synthetic drugs could still be traded internationally, just as meth currently is between Mexico and the United States).

I mull these possibilities over at Washington Post’s Wonkblog. The piece is more speculative than what I usually write, so I could very easily be wrong about the future of synthetic drugs. At the same time very few industries don’t go through dramatic changes now and then, and the shape of current drug markets has been fairly stable for an awfully long time.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University. He served as a senior policy advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy from 2009 to 2010.