Lisa N. Sacco Analyst in Illicit Drugs/Crime Policy
Kristin M. Finklea Specialist in Domestic Security
Synthetic drugs, as opposed to natural drugs, are chemically produced in a laboratory. Their chemical structure can be either identical to or different from naturally occurring drugs, and their effects are designed to mimic or even enhance those of natural drugs. When produced clandestinely, they are not typically controlled pharmaceutical substances intended for legitimate medical use. Designer drugs are a form of synthetic drugs. They contain slightly modified molecular structures of illegal or controlled substances, and they are modified in order to circumvent existing drug laws. While the issue of synthetic drugs and their abuse is not new, the 112th Congress has demonstrated a renewed concern with the issue.
Synthetic drug abuse is reported to have dramatically increased between 2009 and 2011. Calls to poison control centers for incidents relating to harmful effects of synthetic cannabinoids and stimulants have increased at what some consider to be an alarming rate. The reported harmful effects of these substances range from nausea to drug-induced psychosis. Due to the unpredictable nature of synthetic drugs and of human consumption of these drugs, the true effects of these drugs are unknown. Many states have responded to this issue by passing synthetic drug laws banning certain synthetic cannabinoids and stimulants.
In March 2011, the Attorney General—through the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA)— used his temporary scheduling authority to place five synthetic cannabinoids on Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act (CSA). In October 2011, the DEA used this temporary scheduling authority to add three synthetic stimulants to Schedule I. Concern over the reported increase in use of certain synthetic cannabinoids and stimulants has led some to call on Congress to legislatively schedule specific substances. This is, in part, because congressional action could permanently place certain substances onto Schedule I of the CSA more quickly than might occur through administrative scheduling actions authorized by the CSA.
Several bills have been introduced in the 112th Congress that confront the issue of synthetic drug use and abuse. These include the Combating Dangerous Synthetic Stimulants Act of 2011 (H.R. 1571, S. 409); the Synthetic Drug Control Act of 2011 (H.R. 1254) and its companion bill—the Dangerous Synthetic Drug Control Act of 2011 (also known as the David Mitchell Rozga Act, S. 605); and the Combating Designer Drugs Act of 2011 (S. 839). While these bills differ substantively from one another, they all aim to legislatively place various synthetic drugs on Schedule I of the CSA.
In considering permanent placement of specific synthetic substances on Schedule I of the CSA, there are several issues on which Congress may deliberate. Policymakers may consider the implications on the federal criminal justice system of scheduling certain synthetic substances. Another issue up for debate is whether Congress should schedule certain synthetic substances or whether these substances merit Attorney General (in consultation with the Secretary of HHS) scheduling based on qualifications specified in the CSA. Congress may also consider whether or not placing these synthetic drugs on Schedule I would hinder future medical research. In addition, Congress may consider whether it is more efficient to place these drugs on Schedule I of the CSA or to label them as analogue controlled substances under the Controlled Substances Analogue Enforcement Act.
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