WASHINGTON — The House voted Thursday to ban synthetic drugs nicknamed “bath salts” and other compounds that mimic marijuana, cocaine and methamphetamines.
U.S. Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pa., said his legislation, H.R. 1254, identifies chemical compounds that affect the brain in ways similar to THC, the active ingredient in marijuana. They would be added to the highly restrictive Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act.
The bill also bans chemical compounds in synthetic drugs marketed as “bath salts” or “plant food” and under brand names such as K2 and Spice that have been used as substitutes for cocaine and other narcotics. They are now sold legally in some states.
Dent’s bill includes the chemical compounds found in 7H, Diablo and other similar products sold in Kentucky in some markets, tobacco shops and hookah lounges.
“This is a great piece of legislation,” Bowling Green-Warren County Drug Task Force director Tommy Loving said. “My only thought would be this sort of legislation takes more time than being handled at the state or local level.”
The need remains for Kentucky and specifically Warren County to ban the sale and possession of synthetic cannabinoids because those laws can be enacted quicker than the federal legislation, he said.
Bowling Green City Commissioner Bill Waltrip had considered sponsoring an ordinance that would have banned the sale of 7H and other synthetic cannabinoid agonists - which simulate the effects of marijuana - within the city limits. However, he announced Tuesday during a city commission work session that Warren County Fiscal Court is going to address the matter on a countywide level Friday.
Warren County Attorney Amy Milliken has drafted a resolution that would prohibit the sale and possession of herbal incense products within Warren County. The draft ordinance bans the chemical composition found in 7H and many other similar products.
“Emergency room doctors are seeing devastating effects on these young people,” Milliken said. “The goal of fiscal court is to prevent a death.”
If the county ordinance passes, possession of the herbal incense in Warren County would be considered a Class B misdemeanor, punishable by up to 90 days in jail and a $250 fine. The sale of the products would be a Class A misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail and a $500 fine, Milliken said.
The proposed federal legislation takes the ban further by placing those types of drugs in the Controlled Substances Act. The legislation now moves on to the Senate for a vote.
“Across the country, we have seen a rise in the abuse of substances that imitate the effects of marijuana and other illegal drugs resulting in tragic, and in many cases, avoidable consequences,” U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Hopkinsville, said in a release. “While these items are sometimes sold legally, they have the same dangers as illegal drugs. This bill would close a loophole that allows for the sale of synthetic drugs while also offering law enforcement officers the tools they need to stop their spread.”
Dent said that in the past year “there’s been a sharp increase in the number of new reports detailing horrific stories of individuals high on synthetic drugs.” He cited a case in Scranton, Pa., where a man high on bath salts stabbed a priest and another incident where someone jumped out of a three-story window after using them.
Dent’s bill also expands from one-and-a-half to three years the authority of the Drug Enforcement Administration to temporarily ban a drug while it investigates its potential danger to public health.
The Senate has yet to take up a similar bill.
These designer drugs can have serious side effects, said Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., causing convulsions, anxiety attacks and dangerously elevated heart rates.
Western Kentucky University freshman Ashley Stillwell, 18, said she smoked 7H for the first and only time Aug. 21 with a group of people she once considered her friends.
She didn’t lose consciousness, but became so lethargic that the people she thought were her friends discussed throwing her body into Barren River if she didn’t come around.
She could hear the discussion, but the drug rendered her unable to respond.
Hours after taking one hit off the 7H, Ashley Stillwell was able to call her parents for help.
Stillwell and her mother, Amy, have been visiting schools and churches to try to get the word about the consequences of using these synthetic drugs.
The vote was 317-98, with some Democrats saying the bill went too far in restricting chemicals that could be valuable to researchers looking for cures to diseases such as Parkinson’s disease.
When a drug is placed on Schedule I, said California Democrat Zoe Lofgren, “It becomes difficult to obtain not only for illegal purposes but for researchers who wish to study its pharmaceutical and medical potential.”
The Drug Policy Alliance, a group that promotes alternatives to harsh drug sentences, said at least 40 states have already passed laws criminalizing Spice and other synthetic drugs and that the bill could subject more people to federal prosecution and lengthy prison terms for distributing small quantities of synthetic drugs.