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Politics Before Science: the House Votes to Step Up Prohibition, Criminalizing Dozens of New Chemicals

Anecdotal evidence beat out science in debate over the bill, which will ban 40 relatively unknown chemicals found in bath salts and fake pot, and make researching them difficult.

Despite the failures of prohibition and the widespread availability of illegal drugs, the House of Representatives decided last week not to accept the reality that drugs will not go away. Instead of re-evaluating the drug war, they escalated the same tactics that facilitate the harm and violence drugs' illegal status creates. On Thursday, a bipartisan-led effort to pass bill HR 1254, which puts dozens of of new chemicals found in synthetic drugs like bath salts and fake marijuana into the most rigid category of drugs, Schedule I, succeeded, despite a minority of members' efforts to convince others to put the science before the politics. 

The scheduling will be effective in obstructing research into these drugs, many of which are not well known or understood. In another blow to science, the bill will double the time the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) is allotted to temporarily schedule substances while conducting the research necessary to adequately determine appropriate categorization. 

The media has been in a frenzy about synthetic drugs, and bath salts in particular, since spring . Made from mephedrone and methylenedioxypyrovalerone (MDPV), bath salts are sold under names like Ivory Wave and Vanilla Sky, and they elicit a high similar to meth amphetamines or cocaine. K2 or Spice, made from synthetic cannibanoids, emulate pot. Both kinds of synthetics are typically sold legally in head shops, but more than 40 states have already moved to ban them. Despite what appears to be widespread use of these drugs, a small number of horror stories show that some people do not respond well to them. But no one knows for sure exactly which chemicals caused adverse reactions, or why.

"By rushing to criminalize synthetic drugs, Congress is condemning more Americans to years in prison and ignoring warnings from the scientific community that this bill will hurt medical research," said Grant Smith, federal policy coordinator for the Drug Policy Alliance, "Outright criminalization compromises both public health and safety by shifting demand for synthetic drugs into the criminal market. It would be more effective for Congress to pursue comprehensive drug education and create a regulatory framework to reduce youth access to synthetic drugs. This approach is working for tobacco, which has contributed to more deaths than alcohol and illicit drugs combined."

Potentially harmful side effects of bath salts and synthetic marijuana have been reported, but that is true of most drugs. The side effects of bath salts include increased blood pressure and heart rate, hallucinations,paranoia and delusions. Some reports say users experience violent fits that even sedatives cannot calm.  Synthetic marijuana leaves some people confused, nauseous, or in the worst of cases, in the midst of a panic attack. The American Association of Poison Control Centers said in May that bath salts-related calls had increased considerably in less than a half a year, because the drug is becoming more popular. There have also been incident reports of violence and self-harm. But rather than find out why they are becoming more common, and why some people experience these side effects, the government moved to make these substances illegal in such a way that obstructs research. 

The bill is yet another knee-jerk reaction to scary drug stories, but more than just reflexively prohibiting these drugs, it also complicates scientific research on them. HR 1254 will put more than 40 new substances into the Schedule I drug category, where drugs are difficult to study because the scheduling defines them as having no currently accepted medical value. It also gives the DEA the power to temporarily schedule a substance for up to three years. The DEA can already use its emergency scheduling power to ban and categorize drugs for 18 months, as it did in September , when officials put three chemicals used in bath salts into Schedule I. During that time the Department of Health and Human Services and the DEA must conduct a scientific, medical examination to determine appropriate placement. The time frame is important because it urges authorities to conduct the research necessary to determine whether the drugs may have medical benefits.