News & Politics

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. 

 The effects a Schedule I category have on research can be seen with cannabis regulations. The DEA and the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) hold the keys to research on medical marijuana, but scientists find that while they may be given permits to do the research, they are denied the pot necessary to carry out their work. Research on marijuana is thus nearly impossible to conduct in the United States, but the government continues to assert that there is not enough evidence to prove marijuana has accepted medical uses. As in California and other states' battles with the feds over medical marijuana, and because many states have already banned these chemicals, the new legislation also poses a threat to states' rights.  

 Blocking research on synthetic drugs is especially damaging because they are new -- some of them have not even made it into the United States yet. We know little about them, except that some people react terribly, but why others don't, we still can't say. What we do know is that people like them, and in places like London, new designer drugs are not just replacements for illegal drugs, but have become drugs of choice. Furthermore, there is some research that suggests synthetic opioids banned by the billmay help to study Parkinson's.

Since Rep. Charles Dent (D-PA) introduced the bill in March, debate over the bill can be characterized by a repetition of decades-old arguments, often lacking insight. Basically, it came down to anecdotal evidence vs. science, and anecdotal evidence won. Those in favor of the bill told horror stories of allegedly drug-induced murder and suicide in their states, hoping that anecdotes are enough to motivate legislators to ban them. 

"I would like to give an example of a synthetic drug that was considered on the way, but is here now,'" one of the bill's co-sponsors, Thomas Marino (PA-D), said at a hearing in November,  "In January of this year, a 48-year-old Panama City, Florida woman was jailed after she attacked and attempted to  behead her 71-year-old mother with a machete.  The woman was high on bath salts she purchased from a local hedge [head] shop."  

Supporters of the bill also articulated concern over the packaging and marketing of legal, synthetic drugs. Pennsylvania's Joseph Pitts (R-PA) said at a House debate last week that while these synthetic drugs are just as dangerous as their "traditional counterparts," they (the counterparts) are illegal. He said that families and young people do not realize the "destructiveness" of these drugs because of "their legal status and wide availability, and often harmless sounding names, such as bath salts and plant food, both cocaine substitutes." 

But kids are not taking these drugs because they think they are plant food or bath salts (which, by the way, do not sound particularly harmless to ingest). The growing popularity of these drugs suggests that users know well what these drugs do. Putting synthetic drugs into a Schedule I category that blocks research will prevent information that may help people make smart decisions; whether it is not take the drugs, or how to take them safely. 

Those opposing the bill spoke to the process already in place for scheduling drugs and showed great concern for science. 

As Rep. Steve Cohen repeatedly said, "Our national drug policy should be driven by science, not politics." Cohen referred to the problems with marijuana's categorization as Schedule I, and said at a debate in November, "For example, marijuana is a Schedule I drug.   According to the criteria under the Controlled Substance Act, this means it supposedly has a high potential for  abuse, it has no currently accepted medical use and treatment in the United States, and there is a lack of accepted safety for the use of the drug under medical supervision. Let us put aside for a moment whether it has any high potential for abuse.  There is certainly a lot of  demonstrative evidence and testimony that would say that is not true.  But I think the thousands of people who have  depended on marijuana in the 15 states where it has been used for medical marijuana to treat the effects of AIDS, cancer, glaucoma, and multiple sclerosis would take issue with the notion that it has no medical use." Summarizing his argument, Cohen said, "We treat our approach to drugs as a law enforcement matter and not a scientific matter, and we have placed marijuana on Schedule 1, the most restrictive schedule." 

Debating the bill in the House on Wednesday, Cohen put it even more simply, "It is nearly as easy as it is to study a schedule I drug a it is to go to the vatican and ask for a license to study birth control." 

Grant Smith, policy director at Drug Policy Alliance, said that while the bill passing in Senate was discouraging, the block of Representatives who opposed it was encouraging. "It’s disturbing that Congress is adding more drugs to failed prohibition in the same year that we observed the 40th anniversary of declaration of the war on drugs by President Nixon. And yet, we are encouraged by Thursday's vote. This was a tough vote. Despite looming elections, and pressure from the Obama Administration and congressional leadership in both parties to pass this bill, a bipartisan bloc of nearly one-hundred members of the U.S. House of Representatives said no to an escalation of the war on drugs. This result demonstrates that the same old arguments in favor of drug prohibition are starting to lose their political appeal. We applaud those members who heeded the call to oppose the criminalization of people who use drugs and the serious implications this bill will have for scientific research,” said Smith.

Smith said the bill is likely to pass in Senate, where similar bills have already passed the Senate Judiciary Committee by voice vote.

Criminalizing these drugs will also put more kids in prisons. Under current law, those convicted of offenses for Schedule I drugs may face 20 years behind bars. While a New York City head shop employee told me in July that "corporates" are the types most likely to purchase bath salts, it is well known that they are unlikely to be arrested for drug offenses. More probable is that shop owners, who may not even be aware the drugs are illegal, will be prosecuted for trafficking, and the racial minorities who are more heavily policed may be targeted as well.

As Michael Michaud (D-ME) said at the House debate on Wednesday, "we need to give our law enforcement officers more tools to combat this epidemic," -- but not why give schools and children more tools to handle it without facing jail time? 

This bill is not the last in terms of accelerating prohibition. The House is also slated to vote for HR 313, the Drug Trafficking Safe Harbor Elimination Act, which amends the Controlled Substances Act to make an American who buys or sells controlled substances outside of the U.S. subject to the same penalties that would occur if the crime were committed on American soil. 

Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), who introduced the bill, said it aims to combat drug traffickers who also work in the U.S., but it could also be applied to, say, a tourist at Amsterdam's Cannabis Cup, or any American working for medical marijuana distributors or safe injection sites abroad. Like all drug convictions, the collateral consequences of such arrests could create obstacles in the way of employment, federal loans for education, and housing, despite the fact that the person was not arrested for violating American law on American soil.  

Kristen Gwynne covers Drugs at AlterNet. She graduated from New York University with a degree in Journalism and Psychology. She is the youngest AlterNet employee.