Drug War

Chuck Schumer Brags About Banning Already Banned Drugs; Time Claims He Also Banned Every Conceivable Substitute

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This week President Obama signed the Food and Drug Administration Safety and Innovation Act, which includes the new ban on two chemicals used in speed substitutes sold as "bath salts." I say "new," but the stimulants covered by the law, mephedrone and methylenedioxypyrovalerone (MDPV), were already illegal under an "emergency" ban announced by the Drug Enforcement Administration last year. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) nevertheless brags about banning them again:

Schumer successfully fought to include three bills relating to synthetic substances—S. 409 (Bath Salts), S. 605 (Synthetic Marijuana) and S. 839 (Synthetic Hallucinogens)—as part of the Food and Drug Administration Safety and Innovation Act….

"President Obama's swift approval of this federal ban is the final nail in the coffin for the legal sale of bath salts in smoke shops and convenient [sic] stores in New York State and throughout the rest of the country," said Schumer. "This law will close loopholes that have allowed manufacturers to circumvent local and state bans and ensure that you cannot simply cross state lines to find these deadly bath salts."  

None of that is true, since 1) mephedrone and MDPV were already covered by the DEA's ban, which the agency had the authority to make permanent, and 2) there are lots of other synthetic stimulants that can be used to make bath salts. Time's Patience Haggin nevertheless falls for Schumer's boast, claiming "the new ban is the first to be enacted on a federal level, meaning it covers the online and interstate sale of bath salts," thereby addressing "one of the biggest weaknesses of prior local bans."

Haggin goes even further than Schumer, asserting that his law "prohibits not only the compounds currently identified as 'bath salts,' but also outlaws similar compounds that may be produced in the future." She says that "in addition to the identified compounds, the law also prohibits other any [sic] synthetics that may have different chemical formulas but produce the same effects." Later she reiterates that "the bill also prohibits 'analogues' of the banned compounds—compounds that may differ slightly in their chemical makeup but produce very similar reactions in users." Hence "when new compounds (which have most likely already been created by drug designers) hit the market, drug enforcement agents will be able to crack down on them under the same law, without the need for new legislation."

But the bill—which never mentions "analogues" (or "analogs," except in the FDA part, which refers to "recombinant analogs" of "plasma products")—includes no such provision, at least with respect to bath salts. It does impose a general ban on "cannabimimetic agents," in addition to 15 specifically listed ingredients used in synthetic marijuana, which may be the source of Haggin's confusion. If it were true that the law prevented bath salt manufacturers from staying one step ahead of the government "by slightly altering the chemical formula to create a compound that may be only a few molecules different but delivers the same high," as Haggin asserts, the DEA's complaints about the law's limited reach would make no sense.

Speaking of making no sense, Haggin's article begins promisingly enough, asking, "Is our long zombie cannibal bath salt apocalypse finally over?" Despite that seemingly jocular opening, she is deadly serious, reporting in the very next sentence that bath salts "have been implicated in a slew of grisly attacks in recent months." In the second-to-last paragraph, Haggin concedes that "the first and most famous attack reported as part of the 'zombie bath salt' craze was revealed last week [two weeks ago, but never mind] to be unrelated to the designer drug" when "a toxicology report on the perpetrator, Rudy Eugene, found that the attacker had no synthetic compounds (only marijuana) in his system." Still, "experts say there is no doubt that the drug is dangerous," since it "has been linked to other attacks and is known to produce violent reactions."

Which experts? For that matter, which drug? After all, as Haggin emphasizes, bath salts may include any of myriad active ingredients. And could Haggin educate the reader by describing some of these "other attacks," presumably by people who, unlike Eugene, actually consumed bath salts? Although she claims to have "a slew" of examples, somehow she cannot part with even one.

I have a suggestion for Time's editors that could spare them a lot of embarrassment: Never let anyone but Maia Szalavitz write about drugs for you. 

More on bath salts here.