Even before the war on drugs began in the early 1970s, the same cycle has played out countless times. A new synthetic drug appears and gains popularity among drug users. This leads to increased visibility and notoriety among the wider public, often due to a dramatic news story.

The report of a Florida man biting off part of a teenager’s face in 2014, for example, was linked to “bath salts,” a synthetic drug of the cathionine class. Ultimately, however, no trace of the substance was found in the attacker’s system. Last year in Florida, another face-biting attack was linked by the press to flakka,  or “gravel,” a similar drug to bath salts. Other stories from around the United States have also linked flakka to violent crime and murder.

Eventually, lawmakers catch up with public outcry and ban the substance in question. All it takes to start the cycle again, though, is for drug manufacturers to make a slight change to the chemical formulation of a banned substance and create a new, technically legal drug. Last year, however, Florida lawmakers led the charge against synthetic drugs with the introduction of a new law outlawing chemical derivatives of illegal substances.

The new law categorizes illegal drugs not by their effects, but by their molecular structures.  Previously, prosecutors would have to prove that an altered version of an illegal drug had the same effects as the substance it was based upon. A small change to the structure of an illegal substance is no longer enough to make it legal; prosecutors need only prove that it is “substantially similar.” This allows law enforcers to tackle the constant stream of new designer drugs head-on before they become more widespread.

The same penalties apply to possessing or distributing these reworked versions of illegal drugs as with the original, and the use of so-called “legal highs” has become more legally complex as a result. Those facing charges for the possession or sale of illegal synthetics are advised to consult an experienced attorney to ensure that their rights are protected.