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Lawmakers Take Aim at Synthetic Drugs

(Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

As partisan divisions threaten to lead to a government shutdown, some members of Congress from both sides of the aisle are uniting against a common foe: synthetic drugs.  

Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pa., introduced a bill Thursday to combat the rise in synthetic drug use, which are often chemicals sprayed onto plants, that can alter users' mental state and cause erratic and violent behavior. Law enforcement has partially attributed the increase in violent crime in the District of Columbia to synthetic drug use. "Ordinarily I would do a press announcement, not in Washington, D.C., but back out somewhere else in America," Dent said after the Capitol Hill press conference Friday. "But we chose Washington, D.C., for a reason. One, yes, this is the capital. But more importantly, this issue has been so prominent right here. ... Washington, D.C., has been hit very hard, perhaps harder than any community.”  

Dent was joined by fellow GOP Rep. David Jolly of Florida and two Democrats: Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, who represents D.C., and Jim Himes of Connecticut. Himes pointed out that, for him and his staff, this issue is personal.  

“I’m also standing here because not so long ago, about a mile away from here, one of my very close friends and interns, Kevin Sutherland, was murdered," Himes told reporters. Sutherland was brutally stabbed to death aboard a Metro train at the NoMa Gallaudet U station on July 4.  

"The alleged perpetrator is alleged to have been acting partly as a result of the effects, possibly, of synthetic drugs in his system," Himes said. "Kevin was a college student, a friend, an intern of mine with his whole life ahead of him, and he lost his life as a result of a crime that is very literally unexplainable."  

The unique challenge in dealing with synthetic drugs, as the lawmakers pointed out, is that manufacturers often change the chemical compound to skirt federal regulations.  

Dent noted that Congress passed a law to combat synthetic drug use in 2012, which added roughly 20 drugs to the Controlled Substances Act. He said the law helped stem the tide of usage, but did not go far enough, so it needs to be updated. He disputed the question that lawmakers could find themselves facing the same problem again in a few years, noting the law adds far more compounds to a list of scheduled drugs and alters existing federal law.  

Lawmakers are looking to add more than 200 compounds to the list of "Schedule I" drugs, or drugs that are likely to be abused and have no medical uses. The bill also aims to assist prosecutors with cases involving drugs similar to already listed Schedule I substances.  

“These drugs occupy a legal gray area,” Dent said. The Federal Analogue Act states that drugs that have a chemical structure that is "substantially similar" to a Schedule I or II drug can be treated as such. Dent's bill would strike the word "substantially," which Dent said sets a "high bar for prosecutors," to help prosecutors litigate synthetic drug cases.  

Local jurisdictions, including the Metropolitan Police Department and the D.C. government, have taken their own steps to combat the drug use. MPD seized more than 250 pounds of synthetic drugs from a warehouse in early September. But MPD Commander Robin Hoey of the Narcotics and Special Investigations Division said at the press conference that the bill would help law enforcement keep the drugs off the street.  

"It’s going to assist as we go forward in addressing this issue," said Hoey. "It’s like the congressman said: There’s so many loopholes [that are] used by these traffickers and these guys that’s creating this stuff. And I think this is going to go a long way to help it.”  

The bill, deemed the Synthetic Drug Control Act of 2015, is aimed at those who sell synthetic drugs, which are often sold at convenience stores that go around federal rules by labeling the colorful packages as "not for human consumption."  

Norton decried how easily the drugs can be obtained, noting she conducted her own "congressional sting" at a gas station in southeast D.C. in December 2012. She sent an aide in to buy the drug, and confronted the gas station owner afterwards, and he promised to no longer sell the drugs.  

“These drugs are, in my judgment, more serious than the drugs that are on the Controlled Substance Act, more dangerous," Norton said. "These are right out in the open. They’re disguised in colored wrapping with snappy names to appeal to young people and children in particular. They are cheap. Much cheaper than the dangerous drugs like cocaine and heroin. They’re sold everywhere. And drugs that are sold everywhere are presumed to be safe. They are openly marketed as an alternative to dangerous drugs and they have bizarre effects.”  

As Dr. Alex Rosenuar, the immediate past president of the American College of Emergency Physicians, pointed out the drugs can induce paranoia and violent behavior. "These are not drugs. They are poisons," he said.  

Though Congress is increasingly focused on averting a government shutdown, Dent was optimistic the bill would be addressed. He said he would begin talking with members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee during Friday's vote series. Himes told CQ Roll Call after the press conference that he was also optimistic, noting the legislation already has bipartisan support.  

"Let’s face it, this kind of stuff is not easily subject to the disease that slows everything else up around here, which is partisan consideration," Himes said. "We’ve got a problem and we have the ability to fix it."

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