Drugs

Senate Drug Warriors' False Claims Pave Way for Dangerous Bill

Dianne Feinstein and Chuck Grassley want to save kids from mythical drug menaces, but real people will get hurt.

"Ecstasy bracelets" (non-edible)
Photo Credit: Pint

The two octogenarian senior members of the Senate Judiciary Committee are up to one of their favorite pastimes again this year. Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Chuck Grassley (R-IA) have reintroduced a perennial bill that would increase penalties for drug dealers who sell products designed to entice children.

If the bill becomes law, anyone who knows or has "reasonable cause to believe" that a "modified controlled substance would be distributed to a minor" will be looking at a 10- to 20-year prison sentence.

But SB 739, the Protecting Kids from Candy-Flavored Drugs Act of 2017, is seemingly justified more by urban myth than by fact, and critics say it's both unnecessary and more likely to be used against real-life sellers of marijuana edibles than mythical dealers of strawberry-flavored meth.

"There are many instances of drug dealers altering flavor and packaging of cocaine or methamphetamines to appeal to children," Feinstein tweeted as the bill rolled out late last month.

"Law enforcement reports that drug dealers frequently combine drugs with chocolate or fruit flavors or package the drugs to look like candy or soda to attract youth," the senators claimed in a joint statement. "For example, there are reports of candy bracelets containing ecstasy; gummy bears laced with Xanax; and candy laced with THC." 

"Cynical criminals take advantage of drug trends in the general population to market dangerous illicit drugs specifically to kids," Grassley added in a separate press release. "It could be marijuana, methamphetamine, cocaine or something else. The criminals are innovative, and the law should keep up with them. Federal law should make crystal clear that marketing potentially lethal drugs to kids will have steep consequences."

Feinstein and Grassley have unsuccessfully filed the bill three times before; the problem is that the crisis they wish to solve largely doesn't exist.

The first time around, they were inspired by media reports of strawberry-flavored meth, but those have been roundly debunked as myths. Some of their other claims are even more ludicrous. "Gummy bears laced with Xanax" seem only to be found on the furthest fringes of the web (a Reddit user subforum, to be precise) dedicated to bored drug hobbyists with too much time on their hands.

The "candy bracelets containing ecstasy" claim appears to be based on a misreading of raver culture percolated through a concerned parents group.

"People (especially at raves) have started wearing bracelets lined with ecstasy as opposed to the old candy bracelets kids used to wear," warned a group called Careful Parents. "Much like the candy bracelets of old, people can eat the drug right off the bracelets. Google images of these bracelets for a better idea of what they look like and be on the lookout if your kids like to go to raves."

That warning was based on a 10-year-old story about rave culture in the Seattle Times. The story indeed mentioned bracelets and ecstasy and "candy kisses" (the sharing of beaded bracelets), but did not claim that the bracelets were made of ecstasy. Wearing colorful bracelets is part of raver culture, but ecstasy bracelets are a myth based on misunderstanding.

The idea of drug dealers peddling candy-flavored drugs to kids may be an old bugaboo, but it just doesn't make much economic sense, said Sanho Tree, director of the Drug Policy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies.

"Those are not popular commodities to sell to children," he told ATTN. "Why risk already severe penalties for some kid's lunch money?"

"This reminds me of the horror stories that you hear every Halloween—where you have people handing out these infused products to children," Daniel Shortt, an attorney who focuses on cannabis law at the firm Harris Bricken, told ATTN. "There's really no data supporting that that happens."

While candy-flavored meth or ecstasy bracelets are mythical, marijuana edibles and beverages are not. They are sold legally under state laws in medical and adult legal marijuana states, but the text of the bill could certainly be interpreted as targeting them as well. It specifies that it would apply to people who sell federally illegal drugs to minors that are:

  • Combined with a beverage or candy product,
  • Marketed or packaged to appear similar to a beverage or candy product, or
  • Modified by flavoring or coloring to appear similar to a candy or beverage product.

"That's broad," Shortt said. "I worry about how that could applied to marijuana-infused edibles."

Edibles are often infused in candies, cookies and chocolates and in brightly packaged beverages. Mythical strawberry-flavored meth dealers aren't likely to be caught up if this bill ever passes, but people selling pot brownies, in the black market or in the legal pot shop, who sell to minors, either knowingly or inadvertently, are.

Phillip Smith has been a drug policy journalist for the past two decades. Smith is currently a senior writing fellow at the Independent Media Institute