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Dealing with synthetics: time to reframe the narrative.


Julia Buxton, Dave Bewley-Taylor, Christopher Hallam

Subject Keywords: Drug Control, Narcotics
Catalogue: Research and Evaluation
Type: Report
Region: International (other)

Key Points:
• Despite adjustments over its lifetime, the contemporary international drug control regime has had an historical emphasis in on ‘narcotic’ drugs, such as opium, heroin and cocaine, rather than on a range of synthetic substances.
• Associated policy inertia has resulted in disproportionate attention on counter-narcotic policies and operations in the Global South and in many ways inadequate responses to the synthetic market, including production that is frequently located in the Global North.
• Possible explanations for this focus on plant-based drugs are manifold and complex. They include the fact that the control regime began with concerns over opium-smoking in the ‘orient’, a concentration of drug crops in the Global South, the energies of colonialism (which have been intimately tied up with ‘drug wars’), broader geo-political imperatives and the focus of policy metrics on drug crops.
• The market for synthetic drugs has grown exponentially in recent years, becoming the second-most illicit drugs consumed after cannabis. In 2014, the UN estimated that there were 35.7 million users of amphetamine type stimulants (including prescription stimulants), and 19.4 million users of ecstasy. These synthetic drugs outstripped the estimated totals of opioids and cocaine combined.
• Alongside this consumption is that of New Psychoactive Substances that fall outside the control regime and its schedules, which the regime is now attempting to integrate into national and international controls.
• While there was some awareness of the advent of new synthetic drugs in the aftermath of the Second World War and since the 1960s, it is only over recent years, and especially in the wake of the 2016 UNGASS in New York, that a truly serious understanding of the challenges posed by proliferating synthetic drugs has begun to emerge from the international drug control regime.
• This is timely since, considering its policy history and contemporary dynamics, it is now time to reframe the narrative surrounding the way the international community deals with synthetic drugs.





Rights: Public
Suggested citation:

Julia Buxton, Dave Bewley-Taylor, Christopher Hallam. (2017) Dealing with synthetics: time to reframe the narrative. [Online]. Available from: [Accessed: 20th October 2019].


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