If new medicines weren’t subject to such stringent regulation, they wouldn’t be so expensive. We accept the extra cost as the price of ensuring the effectiveness and safety of the treatments we rely on, and of knowing something about their side-effects. There is, however, one class of drugs that by-passes the regulatory filter: illegal narcotics.

We may think we now have a good understanding of the effects of these substances, but, score by score, the ‘traditional’ plant-based narcotics are being displaced by less familiar synthetic drugs. The pace of innovation is now so fast that the law has trouble keeping up with it – as the problem of ‘legal highs’ would suggest.

In a piece for Reuters, David Adam and Zachary Fagenson report on one of the most recent examples:

“For decades, South Florida has battled drug traffickers who ship boatloads of cocaine from South America. Now the region is dealing with a new epidemic – cheap, synthetic drugs that arrive from China through the mail.

“As authorities in the Sunshine State battle with the surge of Alpha-PVP, better known as ‘flakka’ or ‘gravel,’ police departments have begun equipping officers with field detection kits, employing sniffer dogs at mail facilities and training patrol units to look for signs of delirium.”

The drug was “placed on the U.S. list of illegal controlled substances” last year. However, in China, where it comes from, it is still legal:

“Manufacturers there typically classify the drug as a legitimate ‘research chemical,’ and offer discreet delivery by mail.”

As a result it is dirt cheap:

“The drug is widely advertised for sale online by Chinese companies and can be shipped in large quantities to U.S. addresses by established global delivery companies. Once it hits the streets, a single dose can sell for as little as $5.”

Cheap, however, does not mean unprofitable:

“One kilo, worth $50,000 on the street, can be bought… for as little as $1,500, drug experts say.”

Commenting on the story, the American Interest is clear as to the wider implications:

“With the rise of biotechnology, expect to see many synthetic stimulants and other pleasure drugs in the new century, many more powerful and perhaps more addictive than those we have known. Expect them to be discovered in many different countries and to be manufactured in many different places and distributed through many different channels. And also expect that the toll in human life and happiness will be significant.”

But what do we do about it? Surrender is always an option. If we can’t beat a drug trade based on poppy fields and rectally-concealed imports, then what hope do we have against an industry based on advanced laboratories and the internet?

Coming from a libertarian position, there’s an internally consistent argument for legalisation: adults should be free to experiment with their drugs of choice – and free to take the consequences of doing so.

The proposition is less credible coming from the liberalisers of the left. If they’re fine with the idea of an endless series of untested synthetic stimulants hitting our streets, then why not extend the principle to all drugs, not just the recreational ones?

I’d imagine that there are, in fact, very few takers for the idea of completely deregulating the pharmaceuticals industry – least of all on the left. So how can the same people countenance a future in which unaccountable foreign organisations get to sell untested psychoactive substances to an unprepared population?

As a society we have to decide whether or not we’re willing to control the spread of new synthetic drugs. One way or the other, we need to be ready.