Today: U.S. Senate Hearing on Synthetic Drugs Offers Failed Drug War Policies of the Past

Press Release September 24, 2013
Media Contact

<p>Contact: Tony Newman 646-335-5384 or Grant Smith 202-421-5031</p>

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Today, the U.S. Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control will hear testimony from the Drug Enforcement Administration and other government witnesses concerning the control of “K2,” “bath salts” and other synthetic drugs. Although Congress banned more than two dozen synthetic drugs in 2012, dozens of new synthetic drugs are being made available for sale across the country. Today’s Senate hearing will be co-chaired by Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) who recently introduced legislation in the Senate with Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) that would broaden the prohibition on synthetic drugs.

“Senators Feinstein and Schumer should know from decades of enforcing punitive drug sentencing laws that banning more synthetic drugs won’t impact demand and it certainly won’t address the fact that this drug market will remain accessible to anyone who wants in,” said Grant Smith, policy manager with the Drug Policy Alliance’s Office of National Affairs. “It is a shame that Senators Feinstein and Schumer missed recent Senate Judiciary Committee hearings on mandatory minimum sentencing laws and the state-level regulation of marijuana. Both of these hearings illustrated how the U.S. Department of Justice and a growing number of lawmakers are responding to public demands for a new approach to dealing with drugs,” said Smith.

U.S. drug enforcement officials have acknowledged that existing federal laws fail to effectively control synthetic drugs or regulate their introduction to the marketplace. Federal law criminalizes the sale or possession of certain synthetic compounds found in synthetic drug products. However, the chemical composition of synthetic drugs can be modified to create a drug that has a different footprint than the banned drug. Government officials usually discover new compounds after they have already been introduced on the market. Legislation introduced in the Senate by Sens. Feinstein and Schumer would broaden the application of federal law to include variations of banned synthetic drugs. Advocates argue that lawmakers in Congress will not succeed at gaining control of the rapidly changing synthetic drug market until the government creates a system to regulate the development and sale of synthetic drugs to adults.

New Zealand recently became the first country in the world to legally regulate synthetic drugs. The first-of-its-kind law, the Psychoactive Substance Act of 2013, was approved in New Zealand’s Parliament by a 119-1 margin, with support from across New Zealand’s political spectrum. The law creates a new government agency within New Zealand’s Ministry of Health that is charged with ensuring that synthetic drug products meet adequate safety standards before going to market. Under the law, individuals and companies who apply for a license to import, manufacture or sell a new drug in New Zealand must submit the product to rigorous clinical trials to examine toxicity and addictiveness (at the expense of the producer/importer), followed by an evaluation of the results by an independent expert advisory committee. The government is also charged with enforcing labeling and packaging requirements and regulatory restrictions on advertising and places where synthetic drugs can be sold.

“While lawmakers in other countries and even our own Department of Justice are increasingly acknowledging the colossal failures of drug war policies and looking towards reform, it is baffling and frustrating that Senate leadership on this issue would come at this so backwards,” said Smith. “If lawmakers in Congress truly cared about addressing the health and safety harms of synthetic drugs, they would consider responsible policy approaches for dealing with the problem, rather than revisiting failure,” said Smith.

A young woman holds a sign that says "End the Drug War."

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