DEA Officials Complain That Synthetic Drug Ban Is Too Narrow

DEA officials are complaining (anonymously) that the synthetic drug ban approved by a congressional conference committee last week does not cover all of the stimulants they thought it should. The Synthetic Drug Abuse Prevention Act of 2012, Part D of the Food and Drug Administration Safety and Innovation Act, covers two chemicals used in the quasi-legal speed substitutes sold as "bath salts": mephedrone and methylenedioxypyrovalerone (MDPV), both of which are already illegal under an "emergency" ban announced by the DEA last year. Fifteen other stimulants flagged by the DEA were included in a stand-alone bill approved by the House last December, but they did not make it into the FDA bill, apparently due to resistance from Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Astounded that Leahy would not do whatever the DEA asked in the name of protecting Americans from "a deadly array of toxic drugs," ABC correspondent Russell Goldman takes up the agency's cause (emphasis added):

When asked why not criminalize drugs that the DEA says it needs listed to help keep the streets safe, the committee staffer said, "Sen. Leahy has been clear that scheduling controlled substances is not something to be taken lightly."

"It is not without implication to put a whole lot of chemicals on the federal drug schedule," he said. "It means putting more people in jail and makes it harder to seek legitimate uses for these drugs. Leahy is most comfortable sticking with what has been carefully considered."

Wait. Prohibition entails costs? The DEA never mentioned that. Goldman nevertheless seems convinced that banning "bath salts" (every last one of them) is necessary, because they are "believed to have played a role in a spate of grisly incidents, including a May assault in Florida in which an attacker allegedly high on the drug chewed off a homeless man's face." Believed by whom? On what basis? Who, exactly, alleged that Rudy Eugene was under the influence of "bath salts" when he attacked Ronald Poppo, and what was the evidence for that claim? Should we maybe wait for the results of toxicological tests on Eugene's body before rushing to ban chemicals he may never have consumed? Even if Eugene did take one of the drugs on the DEA's list, does that mean the drug made him eat Poppo's face? Should we apply a similar kind of reasoning to, say, alcohol?

The alleged link between "bath salts" and cannibalism is not the the only questionable claim that Goldman endorses. Judging from this article, he also believes that cocaine and methamphetamine, both of which are legal for medical use, are "on the 'Schedule I' list of federally criminalized drugs," and that "synthetic marijuana" (also targeted by the synthetic drug ban) is distinct from "the street drugs 'K2' and 'Spice,'" which are brands of fake pot.

Goldman does correctly note that the FDA bill strengthens the DEA's authority to quickly impose a temporary ban on drugs it considers an "imminent hazard" to public safety (as it has already done with mephedrone, MDPV, and a third stimulant, methylone, along with five compounds used in fake pot). The bill lengthens the duration of such "emergency" bans from one year to two years, and the DEA will have the discretion to extend that period for an additional year (rather than the six months allowed by current law). The DEA also has the authority, using a more elaborate process, to permanently ban drugs without congressional action, as it did with MDMA, which it temporarily banned in 1985 and permanently placed on Schedule I the following year. In February the agency announced its intention to make its temporary ban on fake pot ingredients permanent, and it is expected to do the same with its "bath salt" ban. So a good question for Goldman to ask in response to DEA bellyaching about the limited scope of the stimulant ban would have been: Why don't you guys just ban these drugs on your own? 

Quoting an unidentified DEA official, Goldman says the agency is "playing a 'game of whack-a-mole,' discovering new drugs and trying to classify them fast enough to prosecute offenders." There are indeed many possible stimulants, THC substitutes, and psychedelics out there, but that is a challenge for legislators as well as DEA bureaucrats. Perhaps prohibitionists should pause to consider how this game increases drug-related harms by encouraging people to mess around with novel substances that could prove more dangerous than the ones Congress and the DEA have managed to ban so far.

In addition to mephedrone, MDPV, and "cannabimimetic agents" (including 15 that are named specifically), the Synthetic Drug Abuse Prevention Act of 2012 bans nine synthetic psychedelics in the "2C" family.  

More on fake pot here. More on "bath salts" here.

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  • Fist of Etiquette||

    It should be in PPACA that the Secretary of Health and Human Services can designate the contents of the federal drug schedule at a minute by minute basis, because the things that were perfectly safe yesterday can be zombie-makers tomorrow.

    But for now, we should all be happy that the chemicals that we currently possess that aren't prohibited will be grandfathered in when the list changes. The coppers can't bust you if you bought it while it's legal, right? RIGHT?

  • Rich||

    Even if Eugene did take one of the drugs on the DEA's list, does that mean the drug made him eat Poppo's face? Should we apply a similar kind of reasoning to, say, alcohol?

    Not only to alcohol, but to religion as well.

  • sarcasmic||

    Should we maybe wait for the results of toxicological tests on Eugene's body before rushing to ban chemicals he may never have consumed?

    If the tox tests show he wasn't on bath salts, then they are wrong.

  • ||

    This sounds very familiar to me, for some reason. (drink?)

  • BakedPenguin||

    ...the agency is "playing a 'game of whack-a-mole,'

    This is all they do, forever and ever. Except the "moles" are humans.

  • mr simple||

    Can someone remind me where in the US Constitution it gives a non-elected bureaucracy the authority to unilaterally ban anything?

  • Whiterun Guard||

    I think it's somewhere in one of the appendices.

  • WTF||

    First you have to find where in the Constitution it gives the federal government the authority to ban anything.

  • ||

    It's all outlined in the President's secret book. Don't you worry your purty little haid about anything.

  • mr simple||

    Thanks, I feel better now. What was the question? Oh look, American Idol is on.

  • Cell||

    I would guess that the permanent bans were based on new information that gave the DEA authority, such as the chemical composition of the product.

  • sarcasmic||

    You've got it backwards.

    The federal government can do anything that is not explicitly banned by the Bill of Rights.

    And even that is up to interpretation.

  • R C Dean||

    Pretty much, sarc. If OCare is still standing after Friday, no one will even be able to pretend otherwise.

  • Whiterun Guard||

    Judging from this article, he also believes that cocaine and methamphetamine, both of which are legal for medical use, are "on the 'Schedule I' list of federally criminalized drugs," and that "synthetic marijuana" (also targeted by the synthetic drug ban) is distinct from "the street drugs 'K2' and 'Spice,'" which are brands of fake pot.

    Hrm...you sure seem to know a lot about illegal drugs, there, Mr. Sullum...

  • Rich||

    Michele Leonhart knows a *lot* more.

  • mybarber||

    All these agencies like vague expansive laws where they fill in the blacks ans they see fit.Look at the E.p.a.They say they write rgulations but their writing laws ,and in a unconstitutional manner.I'm not suer if the think they know what needs to be done or if it's to protect their jobs.Their evil either way.The D.E.A. wnats a law that says ban what you wnat.

  • Fatty Bolger||

    Synthetic marijuana is being blamed in a case where a man chased a neighbor, before strangling and eating the neighbor's dog.

    But I think we all know what this really means.

  • ant1sthenes||

    Undercover cop?

  • Auric Demonocles||

    A federal politician from Vermont doing something right? Didn't see that coming.

  • Auric Demonocles||

    Sullum misses alt-text, should have seen that one coming.

  • daveInAustin||

    From the DEA's point of view, prohibition is a source of revenue and an opportunity for mangers to increase the size of their fiefdoms. Of course then don't think of the costs. And there's no need to be worried about people who aren't trying to get high getting caught up with mandatory minimums because prosecutors have discretion

  • R C Dean||

    Sen. Leahy has been clear that scheduling controlled substances is not something to be taken lightly.

    I loled.

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