Every month a new designer drug seems to appear on the market. A Geneva scientist is helping to further our knowledge by compiling a database of all the synthetic drugs that exist - and even some that do not.
Karel Valter has already published his Designer Drugs Directory, which has sold 600 copies. He is now working on a CD-Rom that he hopes will act as a useful tool for police and forensic scientists.
"When I started I found that there was an incredible lack of samples, an incredible shortage of knowledge and a lot of confusion about these drugs," Valter told swissinfo.
Valter, who is from the Czech Republic, set about recreating these drugs in as pure a form as possible in his laboratory at the Geneva Cantonal Ecotoxicology Office. He says many of the drugs sold on the street are not what they seem.
"These drugs are usually close analogues, their 'fingerprints' are almost identical. Some compounds which are simply considered to be ecstasy, have very different pharmacological properties and toxicity to ecstasy," Valter says.
"Most machines that are used to analyse illegal drugs are not able to recognise these new compounds," he adds.
Valter is hoping to identify and describe all these synthetic drugs, so that they can be more easily recognised in future, and their effects on the human body anticipated and understood.
His directory gives the standard chemical name, molecular structure and registration number of each drug. It also lists the drug's street names, as well as explaining what it does to the body, how long its effects last and its level of toxicity.
"Originally, it was written for forensic scientists and police. But it contained quite a bit of chemical data, and my editor considered it slightly dangerous, because he didn't want it to be a 'cookbook'. So we had to remove a lot of the chemical information, so that now it's more of a directory. But in this way, the book became easier to read and more interesting to social workers and groups working with people who take drugs," Valter says.
So far the response from the Swiss police has been lukewarm. The Justice and Police Ministry says the number of deaths from ecstasy overdoses in Switzerland is not very high, even if anecdotal evidence suggests its use is widespread.
However, Interpol has been more enthusiastic. It has expressed an interest in including Valter's findings in its global databank. The implications for policing are clear. It has already been suggested the directory could be used to establish whether someone had taken so-called date-rape drugs such as GHB.
Valter has not been limiting himself to existing drugs: "Of course, I have designed my own drugs. I try to anticipate future trends, and I produce some close analogues which are likely to be found on the illicit market," he says.
"The clandestine chemist produces these new drugs because he may have run short of the materials to make LSD or ecstasy, so he uses what he has to hand. These new drugs multiply like rabbits, because close analogues of these controlled starting compounds are readily available," says the chemist.
Ironically the reference database Valter is trying to build already exists in the United States. But the Americans are not always willing to share their information.
"The Drugs Enforcement Agency already possesses a very complete substance reference library. But it's very difficult to obtain a sample from them because of all the bureaucracy."
"Even if I don't make a collection as extrensive as the DEA's, I would like to make something that is perhaps second only to their database," Valter says.
by Roy Probert