Reviewed by Maia Szalavitz
I've been reading and writing about drugs and addiction for over a quarter century (yikes!) so I'm somewhat curmudgeonly in this area: what's news to many isn't likely to be so to me, and even the most egregious errors can only enrage you a certain number of times before you develop, unfortunately, at least some degree of tolerance.
But Mike Power's new Matter ebook, Uncontrolled Substances, is different.
Power avoids both the clichés and the errors, delivering a compelling story about a genuinely new development in the drugs world: the advent of so-called "legal highs." These are new synthetic substances similar to illegal drugs that are sold over-the-counter at head shops and convenience stories, often winkingly labeled as apparently innocuous products like "bath salts" or "plant food."
Often never even tested first on animals, the drugs are typically manufactured in Chinese factories and distributed globally via the internet. They range from marijuana-like products to those aimed at mimicking psychedelics or stimulants.
Power takes us into the story in several ways: by describing the difficulties faced by E.R. doctors dealing with overdoses and bad reactions to the substances, by telling the stories of key chemists, and by seeking to have a Chinese company produce a sample of a stimulant once taken legally by the Beatles, John F. Kennedy, Frank Sinatra and Marilyn Monroe that was pulled from the market in 1971. Power weaves these elements together seamlessly, while describing the difficulties that the new substances present to public health and regulators.
Synthetic drugs reveal a fundamental flaw in the foundation of the current international drug control regime, which is its irrationality. It is impossible to make a scientific case for a system that makes cigarettes and alcohol legal for recreational use, some opioids legal in some places for pain relief, and marijuana completely illegal. This means there are no objective criteria in existing law for determining which of the new drugs should be legal and which should not be.
Regulators have tried to address the problem by banning "chemical analogues" of illegal drugs, but this, again, runs into science: drugs that are structurally similar can have very different effects, and drugs that are completely dissimilar structurally can be pharmacologically alike. Simply banning every new drug as it appears also runs into issues with pharma: prohibit willy-nilly and you may unwittingly be blocking cures for cancer, Alzheimer's or depression.
As Power notes, even the hardliners at the United Nations Office of Drug Control Policy admitted in their World Drug Report this year that the system is "floundering" in its attempts to deal with the problem: one in 12 adults worldwide has at least tried one of the drugs.
Uncontrolled Substances offers a fascinating introduction to the issue--but it may, like many drugs, leave you craving more. In this case, however, I highly recommend it!
[Disclosure: I am writing a forthcoming ebook for Matter, with a different editor]
Maia Szalavitz is a neuroscience journalist for TIME.com and other publications. She is author, most recently of Born for Love: Why Empathy is Essential—and Endangered , with Bruce Perry, M.D. Ph.D. Her next book, Unbroken Brain, will examine addiction as a developmental disorder.