Drug Policy

DEA Officials Complain That Synthetic Drug Ban Is Too Narrow

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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.