Congress Poised to Repeat Mistakes of Past With Knee-Jerk Criminalization and Prohibition</p>
Advocates: Comprehensive Education, Age Controls, and Other Restrictions More Effective at Reducing Harm</p>
Federal legislation that would ban possession and sales of chemical compounds found in products such as "K2," "Spice," and "bath salts" began moving this week in House and Senate committees. Lawmakers are considering four bills -- three in the Senate and one in the House -- that would add these synthetic drugs to Schedule I, which is the most restrictive category of drugs that have a "high potential for abuse and no medical value."
On Tuesday, the House Subcommittee on Health approved legislation by voice vote, and today (Thursday, July 28th) the House Committee on Energy and Commerce and Senate Judiciary Committee are scheduled to vote on legislation.
"Lawmakers are poised to repeat mistakes from the past by creating ineffective laws that will criminalize more people and drive these substances into the illicit market," said Grant Smith, federal policy coordinator with the Drug Policy Alliance. "History has clearly shown that prohibiting a drug makes it more dangerous, not less. Instead of more failed drug prohibition, Congress would be much more successful with an approach that restricts how these drugs are marketed, provides comprehensive drug education, and has strict age controls. To best reduce the harms of these drugs, Congress should instead support rigorous scientific study to better understand what is in these products, and establish a robust system of regulation and control of the synthetic drug market."
Provoked by extensive media coverage of several tragic events involving young people who allegedly consumed a synthetic drug, lawmakers in more than a dozen states have passed laws criminalizing synthetic drugs. In November 2010, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), acting in accordance with its emergency scheduling authority, temporarily added several chemical compounds found in synthetic marijuana products into Schedule I of the federal Controlled Substances Act. Federal lawmakers are now weighing whether to permanently place many of the chemical compounds found in synthetic drug products under Schedule I.
"This legislation comes at a time when Washington is seeking to reduce federal spending. Yet, enforcing a federal ban on synthetic drugs isn't going to be cheap and we already know from marijuana prohibition that this approach won't work," said Smith. Organizations such as the Heritage Foundation have cautioned Congress to avoid creating unnecessary federal crimes. Prohibiting synthetic drugs will also expand the reach of the federal government into local affairs. The vast majority of drug enforcement is carried out by state and local agencies, so the federal government is passing the costs of this legislation on to them.
Over the past two years, synthetic versions of marijuana and other illegal drugs have appeared in stores. These drug products are typically consumed for their psychoactive effect, but are marketed as incense or for other household purposes. Many people are attracted to these products because it was not a crime to use or sell them until recently. Each product contains chemical compounds that are poorly understood by scientists. In fact, very little scientific research has been conducted on the pharmacological and psychopharmacological properties of synthetic drugs, and plans to place synthetic drugs in Schedule I would jeopardize further scientific study even as more research is needed to identify potential medical benefits and health harms.
"The irony is that the only reason that people use synthetic marijuana is because the real thing is illegal," said Smith. "But passage of this legislation will only further escalate the war on drugs, send more people to jail, exacerbate health harms, and ignore four decades of comprehensive research and review that confirms the war on drugs approach has failed," said Smith.