SINGAPORE - There is a new and alarming trend in the abuse of recreational drugs.
According to a United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) report just out, designer drugs - officially called New Psychoactive Substances (NPS) - had emerged "in every region of the world, in a total of 94 countries worldwide", by last year.
NPS are man-made compounds whose molecular structures can be modified.
New variants are made to try to overcome government bans, which define drugs according to their molecular structure. Illicit laboratories in the region are mainly located in China, Myanmar and the Philippines.
First detected in Singapore in 2011, the two main types of NPS abused here, as noted by the Central Narcotics Bureau recently, are synthetic cannabinoid and synthetic cathinone.
The former is synthetic marijuana, while the latter is synthetic cocaine.
Euphemistically called "herbal incense", synthetic cannabinoids are more potent than plant (natural) cannabis.
Synthetic cathinone, called "bath salts" by users, mimics the effects of cocaine, LSD and methamphetamine.
The UNODC report said that the Asia-Pacific region was already "a large and established market for NPS".
From just one form of synthetic cannabinoid being reported in 2009, there were 52 variants detected in 2013.
Similarly, while only one form of synthetic cathinone was reported in 2009, some 37 variants were detected being sold in the region last year.
The highest number of such NPS reports filed from the region with the UNODC in 2013 came from Australia, New Zealand and Singapore, in that order. Throw in other types of NPS, and almost 210 designer drugs were detected in the region last year.
On May 1, Parliament banned over 100 NPS under the First Schedule of the Misuse of Drugs Act. The First Schedule lists the most harmful and addictive drugs class, which attracts the most severe penalties.
NPS traffickers face a maximum of 20 years behind bars and 15 strokes of the cane. NPS abusers can be jailed up to 10 years, fined up to $20,000 or both.
In contrast to heroin addicts, NPS users tend to be younger, more educated and more affluent. They prefer NPS due to their online availability: they can be sent by post as they can't be detected by sniffer dogs.
Also, users can't be detected with conventional urine tests. And NPS even fell into a legal grey zone until May 1.
This trend has serious implications for public health. Not only do NPS have no known medical uses but they can also cause very serious side effects, including death.
"Herbal incense" is sold as dried, pulverised plant material laced with fragrances like strawberry or pineapple and spiked with a synthetic cannabinoid.
While its molecular structure differs from the active molecule in the cannabis plant called tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), a synthetic cannabinoid or synthetic marijuana acts on the same (CB1) cannabinoid receptors in the brain as THC does.
The synthetic version gives euphoria, relaxation and sociability when smoked just like the natural plant. But because it is four times stronger than natural cannabis, it causes nasty side effects similar to smoking lots of very high-grade plant cannabis at one go.
These side effects include an overly fast heartbeat, fits, paranoia, hallucinations, delirium, suicidal ideas, self-mutilation and aggressive behaviour.
Users have been known to turn violent, kill others and even commit suicide.
While natural cannabis also acts on CB2 receptors to stop intractable pain in cancer, synthetic cannabinoids don't act on CB2 receptors. They are, therefore, not painkillers and have no medical use.
Also of no medical use are "bath salts", or synthetic cocaine. They can be smoked, snorted, swallowed, injected, inserted rectally or instilled as eye drops. Being intensely addictive, synthetic cocaine causes serious withdrawal symptoms.
In smaller doses, the user feels empathic, confident, energetic and upbeat.
But when too much is taken, the user may experience frightening hallucinations, paranoia, aggression and delirium or depression.
They are also infused with almost superhuman strength. Like the users of synthetic marijuana, users of synthetic cocaine have been known to kill family members or even commit suicide.
Recovering users suffer even more psychosis and long-term mental health issues than long-term cocaine users.
Rogue chemists synthesise ever new NPS by using ingredients from an ever-changing list to modify the structure of the natural molecule.
This makes it difficult to track the emerging variants being sold on the black market.
These chemists are also unconcerned about product purity. This makes their designer drugs unpredictable in their effects, a factor that raises the risk of a fatal overdose. Critically, there are no known antidotes for overdosing on an NPS.
By the time the authorities have identified a new variant, another might well have emerged. Amending legislation to close the loopholes that underground chemists exploit by adjusting the chemical structure of their products addresses only the supply issue.
While this step is necessary, it is only part of the solution. Instead, more needs to be done about the demand side.
That is, potential users who are unaware of the dangers that NPS pose must be informed.
Affluent teens and young adults who are most drawn to NPS must be warned about them using frightening educational videos, among other things.
No matter how harsh the law, some are still willing to sell these drugs.
Thus, more must be done to limit the number of people who are willing to buy them.
This article was first published on June 9, 2014. Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.