Drug Policy

A Couple of Chucks Push Bans on Imitation Pot and Speed

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Today the Senate Judiciary Committee approved a bill co-sponsored by Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) aimed at banning "the chemicals used to make the dangerous drug known as 'K2' or 'Spice.'" Unlike candy-flavored meth, which Grassley and Feinstein also have sought to ban, K2 and Spice definitely exist: They are brands of "incense" that consist of dried herbs sprayed with synthetic cannabinoids intended to provide a marijuana-like high. According to Grassley, they are deadly:

The David Mitchell Rozga Act, S. 605, [is] named for the 18-year-old from Indianola who took his own life in June 2010, soon after using K2 purchased from his local shopping mall. Poison control centers and emergency rooms around the country are reporting skyrocketing cases of calls and visits resulting from K2 use, with physical effects including increased agitation, elevated heart rate and blood pressure, hallucinations, and seizures. A number of people across the country have acted violently while under the influence of the drug, dying or injuring themselves and others.

David Rozga's death may have been the first in the country stemming from this new type of synthetic drug.  In January, a high-school student in Omaha killed his assistant principal and himself. He had K2 in his system.

Case closed. In Grassley's view, prohibition of K2 and similar products, making it a felony to manufacture or distribute them, is justified by three deaths, none of them directly caused by K2 but supposedly the result of violence triggered by the drug. And how do we know the drug is to blame? Because people took it and did bad things. No drug—least of all alcohol—would pass the Grassley test. (In a 2009 Reason article, I described how a single teenage suicide had likewise driven state bans on Salvia divinorum.) 

Grassley's bill is much broader than the Drug Enforcement Administration's "emergency" ban on four specific chemicals used in fake pot. It names 15 compounds and also covers "any material, compound, mixture, or preparation which contains any quantity of cannabimimetic agents," unless that chemical is specifically exempted or listed elsewhere in the Controlled Substances Act. The bill defines "cannabimimetic agent" as "any substance that is a cannabinoid receptor type 1 (CB1 receptor) agonist." Although Grassley claims his bill "treats K2 like other banned narcotics such as methamphetamine and cocaine," that is not accurate: Methamphetamine and cocaine (which are stimulants, not "narcotics") are both Schedule II drugs, meaning the government recognizes legitimate medical uses for them, whereas the David Mitchell Rozga Act classifies "cannabimimetic agents" as Schedule I drugs, meaning they are banned for all purposes.

The Drug Policy Alliance's Grant Smith says such hasty action is unjustified, calling instead for "an approach that restricts how these drugs are marketed, provides comprehensive drug education, and has strict age controls." He adds:

Congress should…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…

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.

Smith also notes that "the only reason that people use synthetic marijuana is because the real thing is illegal." As I've said before, that situation is utterly irrational in terms of public safety or consumer protection, since marijuana is much more thoroughly researched and its hazards are minimal.

On Tuesday, Smith notes, the House Subcommittee on Health approved, by a voice vote, a bill similar to Grassley's. In addition to synthetic cannabinoids, that bill, H.R. 1254, also bans 15 stimulants used in imitation speed (a.k.a. "bath salts"). Testifying (PDF) before the subcommittee on July 21, the bill's chief sponsor, Rep. Charles Dent (R-Pa.), noted that "these drugs can in fact be even more harmful than the substances they simulate." Dent made this observation to show the need for prohibition, not to cast doubt on the wisdom of the government's arbitrary distinctions among psychoactive substances. His implicit premise seems to be that the government must ban all substances more hazardous than the ones that are already prohibited. Under that rule, like Grassley's, there would be no legal drugs left, with the possible exception of caffeine.