An article from my colleagues at RTI spotlights four classes of designer drugs that are used for abuse. It covers the ways that clandestine chemists have subverted the research work done for legitimate purposes to make and sell street drugs, with potentially disastrous consequences for those desperate enough to use them.
The poster child for this is heroin. It was originally made as an alternative to morphine, with the aim of making something active but less addictive. That did not work out so well.
Then there is the appearance of meth labs, with the occasional one blowing himself up.
The one I am most familiar with is the synthetic cannabinoids, which are sold as incense or bath salts with names like K2 or Spice. A lot come from the work of John Huffman at Clemson, indeed several of this class are now banned in the U.S., but the problem is that the sellers have apparently read the medicinal chemistry articles and picked out the best ones. And so the first few to appear like JWH-018 disappear and are replaced by the technically legal derivatives that are almost the same. A further problem is that the full effects of these compounds is not fully understood, but at first glance seem notably more dangerous than regular ol’ marijuana. And on top of that, the medium that the compounds are delivered on is plant material which itself has pharmaceutical effects. It all adds up to a dangerous situation.
The problem is what to do about it. The publication of results is an important part of the scientific method and the dispersion of ideas helps formulate other ideas. We can’t control those ideas though, so some of them are selfish and exploitative. It seems all we can do is work on improving our methods of detection of such compound classes and educate the general population about the dangers.