From heroin and cocaine to weed and alcohol, most of the drugs we know are ultimately made from plants.
But this is changing. A new wave of synthetic drugs entirely made in labs are displacing our familiar narcotics - and transforming the entire future of the drugs world.
These are often new deadly and unstable chemicals like fentanyl and Bath Salts, which are already devastating poor communities.
We look at the biggest macro trend in the future of drugs.
Watch more from this series:
How Queer Clubs Changed the Way We Take Drugs
How Steroids Became More Popular Than Heroin
Why Addiction Theories May Be Wrong
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Across the world, illicit drugs are evolving. Within a few years, many of the drugs we know may be replaced by new, dangerous chemicals cooked up in labs. This is one of the biggest stories in the drug world today, and we need to talk about it. A computer hard drive holds a deadly secret, 150 grams of the synthetic drug fentanyl. Each of these ready-to-sell wraps holds enough fentanyl to kill. I’m JS Rafaeli. I’ve spent years writing about drugs— why people use them, and why our governments chose to declare war on them. At VICE, we make a lot of films about drugs, but in this show, I get to dig a bit deeper. I get to talk to fellow expert drug nerds about their research into the crazy world of mind-altering substances. [NEWS ON DRUGS] Max Daly is VICE’s Global Drugs Editor. He’s spent decades researching every aspect of the drugs trade, especially how prohibition is driving the rise of new synthetics that are transforming the way the world gets high. Max, welcome to News on Drugs. Hi.
Good to be here. Why are you so fascinated about the rise of synthetic drugs? Something I kind of spotted a few years ago from all the reporting I’ve done on drugs is a gradual sort of change, almost like a tectonic plate moving, from drugs that are made from plants, like cocaine and heroin, to drugs that are made in labs, like speed, ecstasy, methamphetamine. And that is having huge implications for the global drug trade, drug users, and the world entirely.
Now, this isn’t an entirely new thing, is it? Like, MDMA’s been around for a while. We’ve had synthetic drugs for a long time now, from LSD to MDMA, and methamphetamine has been around for a while.
And of course, we’ve had pharmaceuticals. But I think what’s happening in the last decade, I would say, is we’re seeing a sort of a slow switch where synthetic drugs soon will become dominant over plant-based drugs. We can see that in America with synthetic opioids like fentanyl taking over from heroin almost entirely in some parts of America and Canada. And we’re seeing a huge rise in the use of methamphetamine globally. And we’re seeing also a rise in synthetic drugs replacing drugs like cocaine in the party drug scene. And also, we’re seeing a huge black market in fake medicines, you know, black market Valium, diazepam, etizolam, all these different benzos, including Xanax. Xanax is one of the most popular highs for young people in the UK and the US in particular. And a lot of the Xanax they’re buying isn’t real Xanax. It’s Xanax that is knock-off Xanax.
And these are synthetic drugs. They might be kind of copies of medicines, but still they are part of this huge rise in synthetic drug use across the world. So if I’m a cartel, what’s the business advantage of selling synthetic drugs as opposed to plant-based drugs?
Synthetic drugs are a far better option for cartels because they are easier to produce. With plant-based drugs, you have to wait for the plants to grow. You have to make sure that the plants don’t get destroyed by whether it’s natural causes or by enforcement. Obviously, plants are a bit more easy to see from helicopters, from the sky, as opposed to making synthetic drugs in a lab. A lab could be in any house, any warehouse, any factory. It could be hidden anywhere, so it’s a lot more nimble. What’s going on with methamphetamine? Meth was mainly made in bathtubs in local, regional areas in America. There weren’t a lot of drug dealers around these areas.
There wasn’t a lot of cocaine or MDMA. So what people did is they just thought, “Right, we’re going to make our own stimulants.” So they started, using the ingredients you can find in most stores, they started making their own meth in little mini home meth labs. The enforcement clamped down on these local labs, but then it was given super power by the Mexican cartels deciding that they were going to start making meth.
We’ve all seen Breaking Bad. They really turbo-powered the meth production using a variety of different methods honed over time and improved. So meth use across the US has ballooned as a result of this rise in cheap production by the cartels. It's great profit for them. They can make it very cheaply using chemicals from China and selling it to America, where there’s a big market there. But it’s not just in the US that we’re seeing this boom in meth production, is it? Methamphetamine has taken over from heroin as the main drug of addiction in China. But the the hub of production of meth in Asia is called the Golden Triangle, which is an area which touches on parts of Myanmar, Laos, and Thailand. And that’s where all of Asia’s meth is produced, in this kind of fairly small area, mainly a lot of jungle.
It’s quite easy for the gangs to hide out from the authorities. Those meth pills are also called yaba. They're consumed by a mixture of young people on a night out and also workers to work longer hours.
And they are very cheap, about a dollar a pop. They're also producing crystal meth, which is sort of like the posher version of meth pills, which is a bit more purer. It's the same sort of crystal meth that we see being made in America, and that is being consumed by people who are a bit more wealthy. It's exported to China and Japan and Australasia as well. And on the other side, I think one of the issues which has really brought this all into focus is how synthetic drugs have shaped the overdose crisis in America today. This is one of the most powerful and disturbing elements of this move towards synthetic drugs. The Mexican cartels obviously made a financial decision at some point, “We’re going to start using synthetic opioids instead of the real thing,” slowly replacing heroin with fentanyl. And that is why there is such a high overdose rate in the US. In a way, you could say it sort of poisoned the US’s drug supplies.
In some parts of America and Canada, it’s almost impossible to get heroin now. So everyone is now, their bodies are almost getting used to fentanyl. And people demand, sometimes, fentanyl because it’s more powerful than heroin.
And it’s caused absolute devastation across the US, mainly amongst the poorer communities because it's the poorer communities who buy black market heroin and black market opioid pills. Just to get a picture, how much more powerful is a drug like fentanyl and then carfentanil than heroin? The chemistry shows that fentanyl is around 100 times more potent than street heroin. And I think things like carfentanil, which is another fentanyl analog, is around 10,000 times more powerful than street heroin. And there is evidence of carfentanil creeping into the drug supply. And now the latest trend in synthetic drugs in the overdose crisis is benzo dope, right? Can we talk a little bit about that? Benzo dope is a strange drug which is a mixture of benzodiazepines, which is a bit like Valium, so they’re sort of tranquilizer-type drugs, and opioid drugs, including fentanyl and heroin. So it’s this strange mishmash of drugs in the one bag, which hasn’t been really seen before in the global drug trade.
So rather than having a bag of cocaine or a bag of heroin, these days, because it’s all synthetic powders, which all look fairly similar, people are just literally throwing them together in a mishmash of drugs. In the olden days, there used to be an old adage of “Don’t kill your customer.” Now, that that old adage went out the window with the Mexican cartels replacing heroin with fentanyl. And again, you can see that happening with benzo dope.
Now you’ve got this awful kind of mishmash of synthetic, almost like Frankenstein drug concoctions that are being made in a mixture of unregulated labs around the world. So one day we may look back and miss the innocent days of heroin. Why haven't we seen a fentanyl explosion in Europe in the same way? The chain from Afghanistan through Turkey into Europe of heroin is so efficiently run. And the supply of heroin from Afghanistan is absolutely abundant. Unlike the supply of heroin in America, you’ve got huge, huge amounts of heroin coming into Europe, more than you know what to do with. So I think they’ve made a decision that if it ain’t broke, why bother to try and fix it? Is that process, this switch from plant-based to synthetic drugs, actually sort of part of a deeper pattern that we see, where attempts to prohibit one certain drug actually makes that form of the drug more dangerous and stronger? We saw that in prohibition in America, where, when alcohol was banned, they didn’t start selling beer all over the place because beer was too cumbersome and too big to smuggle.
And so they started producing more potent alcohol, i.e. whiskey. And the same goes for other drugs.
So the more you clamp down on drugs, the more the people who make them and transport them have to make them more and more potent to make it possible for them to get the drugs from one place to another. And maybe one of the clearest illustrations of that in synthetic drugs is the evolution of stuff like bath salts, spice, and K2 and chemicals like that. Can we speak to that for a bit? So in around 2008, 2009, there was a big rise in new psychoactive drugs such as spice, which was meant to mimic weed, and mephedrone, which was meant to mimic cocaine and ecstasy. And those drugs became extremely popular. You know, they became popular across universities in the UK. And why not? You know, they were legal to buy, so you could buy them over the internet, get them delivered to your door in two days’ time, and they were quite potent. And they cost, like, a tenth of the price of cocaine, and you didn’t have to know a cocaine dealer.
Spice in 2008, 2009, it felt like smoking weed almost, you know? And it was quite a pleasant thing. Same with mephedrone, that it was a fairly decent alternative to cocaine or MDMA.
But gradually, as the authorities around Europe started clamping down on these drugs, the chemists kept on tweaking it and tweaking it to stay outside of the law. But every time they tweaked it, it turned the drug into a more and more and more potent and pretty horrible drug. So we have the situation now where spice, which originally was something that was supposed to mimic cannabis, spice is now seen as more potent than heroin by the people who use it. And the only people who use spice really nowadays is prisoners and homeless people. And that now is a drug that’s seen alongside heroin and crack cocaine. Yeah, it’s such an abject lesson in how to get drug policy wrong, isn’t it? Yes. In such a short space of time, in one decade. Yeah.
Yeah. And it’s a great illustration of how prohibition creates increased danger for drug users. But, look, synthetic drugs doesn’t have to be this way.
One could picture a world in which, if research was allowed, actually, people could use all this innovation to make better, safer, and funner drugs. A lot of these drugs are being made in laboratories and got together by gangs who are just intent on making money. We know that people are always going to want to get high. It's part of the human condition. So why not use technology and scientific knowledge to make drugs safer without the path of exploitation and gangsterism that cocaine has? If you can create an artificial drug that is controlled and is not so dangerous as cocaine, then why not? Yeah, and even leave the coca leaf as it was used by the indigenous people of the Amazon, which is actually quite a safe way of using it. But again, we see that synthetization of it into cocaine, and it’s a sort of ecological nightmare and bloody exploitation thing driven by prohibition again. Even, you know, smoking opium, because obviously opium is a step closer to the poppy than heroin is.
The nearer you get to the ground, as it were, to plants, generally, the less dangerous those drugs are. Because, I mean, I think nature intended mankind to get high, but it didn’t intend mankind to completely do a Frankenstein on those substances. We may live to see a world where the last plant-based drug available is actually alcohol.
Yeah. The non-prohibited one. Yeah. Yeah. No, you’re right. Because that production chain is protected by regulation. Which would be kind of a crazy world. Plant-based drugs are dominant. Heroin, cocaine, weed.
I think meth is obviously up there as well. It's going to take a bit of time for synthetic drugs to gradually overtake plant drugs. But that 100 percent will happen because of economics and because of the fact that a lot of drug consumers don’t have a lot of choice in the type of drugs they’re using.
So what does the future of synthetic drugs look like? I think there will be a point where synthetic drugs will be more popular than plant-based drugs. It’s a bit similar to the food industry. Synthetic drugs will be the drugs for the masses, mass produced, very chemical, quite distant from the things that they are supposed to be. They’re not deadly, but they’re more unhealthy than more sort of wholesome foods, as it were. And I think you can say the same for the drugs as well. I think we're going that way with synthetic drugs. Is that a sort of economic almost like apartheid? Yeah.
Yeah. So I think that the drug economy, the drug world will become more divided. So there’ll be the exceptional organic plant-based drugs for the richest people, and there’ll be the mishmash of synthetic highs for the poor.
One of the reasons why I think this is interesting, you know, pointing out this move towards synthetic domination of the drug market, is to say, well, unless we do something quite massive, we know that this is what’s happening in the end. We know drugs are only going to get more toxic, unpredictable, more deadly, more unhealthy. The only way you can sort that out is by managing the drug supply and having some say over what drugs are made and how they’re made.