The Senate has passed House Resolution 1254, the Synthetic Drug Control Act of 2011, which would federally criminalize the possession, distribution, and manufacture of synthetic cannabinoids ("fake marijuana") and synthetic stimulants ("bath salts"). The measure has already passed the House, and President Obama is expected to quickly sign it into law.
Fake pot or bath salts or both are already banned in a number of states, and more states are considering criminalizing them. Both types of drugs have already been subject to emergency bans by the DEA while its legislatively mandated process for evaluating new drugs proceeds.
A widely publicized incident over the weekend in which a man chewed off parts of another man's face before being shot and killed by police has heightened concerns about the new synthetics, generating headlines like "Miami cannibal zombie-like attack linked to powerful 'bath salts' drug," but at this point, such claims are pure speculation. Police in the case have also posited "a new form of LSD" and "cocaine psychosis" to explain the attack, but any real information will have to await a toxicologist's report.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) had single-handedly blocked passage of the bill for months by placing a senatorial hold on it. Paul objected to harsh mandatory minimum sentences in the bill, as well as to further broadening of the federal war on drugs.
But bill supporters, led by Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY), resorted to a parliamentary maneuver to get it passed. They quietly attached it to an FDA regulatory bill, which the Senate passed last Wednesday.
The bill still contains draconian sentencing provisions, including sentences of up to 20 years for a first sale or manufacturing offense and up to 30 years for a subsequent offense.
The bill's sponsors said after the vote that its passage would strike a strong blow against the new synthetics, but industry advocates and the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) disagree.
"Let this be a warning to those who make a profit manufacturing and selling killer chemical components to our teens and children: the jig is up," Schumer said in a statement. "This bill closes loopholes that have allowed manufacturers to circumvent local and state bans and ensures that you cannot simply cross state lines to find these deadly synthetic drugs."
"These new designer drugs can kill, and if we don't take action, they are going to become more and more prevalent and put more and more people at risk," Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), another sponsor of the bill said in a statement. "Today's action is good news for this critical legislation to give law enforcement the tools they need to crack down on synthetic drugs before they put more lives in danger, and I will continue to work to ensure these provisions are signed into law."
But the Retail Compliance Association (RCA), which represents smoke shop and convenience store operators and which opposed the bill, pointed out that the bill only bans five chemical families and only names 15 synthetic cannabinoids. Many of those compounds are already off the market, the RCA said, adding that the bill does not include hundreds of additional compounds unrelated to the chemical families banned under it.
"This bill will be touted as banning what law enforcement has deemed 'fake pot,' but it does no such thing; it actually only bans a few of the potential ingredients of these products, by no means the products themselves," said RCA spokesman Dan Francis. "The bill's range of enforcement may well be limited to the specifically named compounds because labs cannot test for chemical families, nor can the police or retailers. The products are tested by many different levels of this industry, and no lab I have spoken with has a test to determine the chemical family," Francis added.
The CBO, for its part, published a cost analysis of the bill in November that found its impact would be minimal.
"Based on information from industry and law enforcement experts, CBO expects that, by the date of the legislation's enactment, most vendors will have largely replaced the banned substances with new products because many states have already passed legislation banning some or all of the compounds listed in the bill and because the DEA has already issued emergency rules temporarily banning five cannabimimetic agents and three synthetic stimulants," the analysis found.
Still, Congress can pat itself on the back for "doing something" about the new synthetic drugs -- whether or not it actually does anything good.