Addressing a Harford County crowd interested in learning the latest social threats posed by chemical abuse, U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration Special Agent Chip Cooke pointed out that synthetic drugs with names like "spice" and "bath salts," which had been outlawed, are back on the market.

By changing the chemical makeup of the substances by what Cooke characterized as "one little molecule," the definitions in the prohibition against selling would have to be changed to account for the change in chemical formula.

Meanwhile, the substances remain dangerous, as highlighted by the title of Agent Cooke's keynote address: "Synthetic Drugs: Chemicals That Kill." He went on to tell those gathered of another slippery aspect related to the marketing of products like "spice" and "bath salts:" they are labeled "not for human consumption," even as the implicit message is that they're a legal way to get high.

As is the case with any drug – be it legal alcohol, marijuana, which is legal or decriminalized in some states, or crack cocaine – the effects can range from dangerous to deadly.

The emergence of this particular type of recreational drug brings to the forefront a question that has long been secondary in many discussions of public policy with regard to drugs and drug abuse: To what degree is drug use and abuse a criminal problem and to what degree is it a public health problem?

Over the years, it has been treated as both, with federal, state and local governments spending substantial sums of money on law enforcement efforts to arrest those who deal and use illicit drugs, as well as on various rehabilitation programs.

The pantheon of illegal drugs, to date, has been pretty much set: marijuana and hashish, cocaine in its various forms, heroin and other opiates, LSD and certain other psycho-active compounds such as those found in "magic mushrooms." Certainly there are other illegal drugs, and the illegal use of prescription drugs for purposes of getting high is a big problem as well.

The problem with the "spice" and "bath salts" compounds, however, as Agent Cooke pointed out, is that they can be altered slightly to skirt the law and as such will be very difficult to declare illegal. Curiously, this puts them into a category of other substances long abused that are all but impossible to declare illegal -- things like solvents, spray paint and glue, among others.

Though such products clearly aren't intended for human consumption in any way shape or form – indeed many have labels warning against incidental inhalation during use – they have their followings within the chemical abuse community. Also, they can be shockingly addictive and ravaging in their ability to cause extensive damage to the brain and other organs.

It could well come to pass that it becomes possible to figure out a way to outlaw things like "spice" and "bath salts," but, given the reality that marijuana is moving in the direction of joining alcohol as a legal, but controlled, recreational drug, it may not make much difference. Moreover, though public policy has had both law enforcement and public health components, the law enforcement component, especially as it applies to focusing on dealers and distributors, has been the one given the highest priority for decades.

To date, the public policy efforts to control drug abuse have met with, at best, marginal success. The notion that pure and innocent victims fall prey to pushers – which helps fuel the focus on dealers and distributors – has shown itself to be flawed. Dealers and distributors are in business because there is a demand.

Dealing with the demand may well prove to be a more effective way of dealing with the social ills wrought by drug abuse. There are reasonably successful models for dealing with individual abuse problems, thanks in part to alcohol being a legal drug. For some people, alcohol abuse is every bit as debilitating as any illegal drug, and there are reasonably effective programs for dealing with alcohol abuse. Similarly, there are effective programs for preventing the use of solvents and paint, but treatment for abusers of these substances can be a more difficult proposition.

By no means does any of this mean the extreme proposal to legalize everything is a reasonable next step. To the contrary, if the extreme of declaring a "war on drugs" has been shown to be a weak solution, the extreme of legalization and relying on personal responsibility is likely also a weak solution.

A greater focus on dealing with drug abuse from a public health rather than law enforcement perspective, however, is likely going to prove more effective than trying to find a way to declare "spice" and "bath salts," in all their potential forms, illegal.