A new drug war

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Science  30 Jan 2015:
Vol. 347, Issue 6221, pp. 469-473
DOI: 10.1126/science.347.6221.469

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Roughly 2 years ago, recovering cocaine addict Tessa Shlaer went with a friend to the back aisles of an adult superstore in Georgia and bought three clear jars, each containing an ounce of a cloudy white substance. The jars bore different brand names—"Meow Meow," "Bolivian MDPV," and "Miami Ice"—and over the next several days, Shlaer and her friend smoked, injected, and snorted nearly all the jars' contents in a binge that ultimately landed Tessa in the hospital and rehabilitation programs after a severe psychotic break. Blood tests later revealed that Shlaer had taken a mix of stimulants called synthetic cathinones, often referred to as "bath salts," which can be up to 10 times as potent as cocaine. The chemicals belong to a class of compounds called designer drugs, which mimic or increase the effects of an illegal drug, yet mostly slip past law enforcement because their formulas have been tweaked just enough to skirt existing regulations. Since 2009, more than 300 such drugs have surfaced in the United States, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration. Neuroscientist Michael Baumann at the National Institute on Drug Abuse is part of a growing fraternity of researchers working to evaluate the addictiveness of those drugs, decipher how they work in the brain, and predict which are likely to become a major threat. For Shlaer, who still experiences symptoms of withdrawal and hallucinations, the answers to such questions can't come soon enough.