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A gruesome and bizarre incident in which one man chewed off most of another man’s face in Miami last month is spurring Congressional action to federally ban a powerful synthetic drug police say might have incited the cannibalistic crime.
Though toxicology results will not be public for weeks, authorities think 31-year-old Rudy Eugene was intoxicated on “bath salts” — a designer street hallucinogen — when he stripped naked on the side of a major highway and gnawed off the face of Ronald Poppo, 65, before being shot to death by police.
The House and Senate were already working to criminalize the ingredients in the drug, but the progress was slow. Now, despite some skepticism, the bicameral Food and Drug Administration reauthorization conference committee will take up the ban, Members and staff said. The move was prompted, in part, by the notoriety surrounding the “Miami Zombie.”
“When they learn about this face-chewing situation in Florida, hopefully that will change a few minds,” said Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.), an original sponsor of legislation to ban bath salts and other synthetic drugs.
Dent’s bill passed the House 317-98 in December, but it stalled in the Senate when Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) put a hold on the bill, saying drug enforcement should be a state issue.
The Senate impasse was broken last month when Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) attached language resembling the House legislation to the Senate-passed FDA reauthorization bill.
The House FDA bill does not include the language, and because it was brought to the floor under suspension of the rules, Members could not attach amendments.
But given the widespread media attention given to the grisly Miami incident, Dent and other Members of Congress are confident they can push conferees to include the Senate language, or an even stronger ban, in the final conference report.
“These drugs have odd psychotic effects on people,” Dent said. “Out of this terrible tragedy in Florida, we hope this will bring about greater awareness and accelerate the need to enact meaningful legislation that will protect people from this poison.”
The language would add the chemicals used to make bath salts as well as other synthetic drugs, such as a marijuana substitute known as “spice,” to Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act. That would make them illegal to manufacture, distribute, dispense or possess.
More than 30 states, including Florida, already have a ban on bath salts, and the Drug Enforcement Administration is operating under a temporary emergency ban. Congressional action, however, would permanently put a nationwide ban in place.
Rep. Sandy Adams (R-Fla.), who originally authored the bath salts legislation that was rolled into Dent’s bill, said that even though the drug is illegal in Florida, people easily get it elsewhere, allowing for disturbing incidents.
“Even though our state has banned it, this happened,” Adams said of the Miami incident. “Unfortunately, we still do not have a law nationwide, so we’re seeing this stuff coming across state lines.”
Rep. Cliff Stearns, another Florida lawmaker and the third-ranking Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said he feels strongly about banning the drug and he will talk to Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) about it.
“I think it’s imperative,” he said. “People become not only psychotic — hallucinations — but also they start fights in which they can get injured and not have any memory of it.”
Upton’s office was noncommittal but noted that he is taking the ban into consideration.
“We are still examining the Senate language but the chairman is concerned with the dangerous effects of synthetic drugs,” an Upton spokeswoman said.
House Judiciary Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) is working with Upton to see that a synthetic drug ban, which originated in his committee, is included in the final FDA bill, a Smith spokeswoman said.
Senate Democrats will also try to include the ban in the conference committee, according to a Senate staffer involved in the matter.
Still, there is some opposition to the ban. Some civil libertarians believe drugs should not be banned or that such issues should be left up to the states.
Many Democrats voted against Dent’s bill when it came to the floor in December because they said it went too far in restricting chemicals that could be useful for research into cures for diseases such as Parkinson’s.
The FDA conference committee is expected to begin soon and is expected to be relatively free of controversy.
Energy and Commerce ranking member Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) said he had not yet heard about the Miami face eater, but he noted that the ban has passed both chambers.
“I think if the Senators put it in their bill and the House has already passed it separately, it seems to show strong support for the proposal, but it’ll be an issue we’ll have to discuss in conference,” Waxman said.