A Bad Trip: June 2011

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Lawmakers try to stay one step ahead of the chemists manufacturing dangerous synthetic drugs.

By Alison Lawrence

Spice and bath salts sound like something you might toss into a casserole or sprinkle in the bathtub. But they are not nearly so benign as that. Users can experience paranoia, severe anxiety, hallucinations, nausea, skyrocketing heart rates and some even die.

These products are part of a new wave of synthetic drugs widely available in convenience stores and head shops and over the Internet. They mimic the effects of marijuana, cocaine and ecstasy and up until recently have been totally legal.

“The presence of [these drugs] is extremely troubling for a number of reasons,” says Kansas Senator Vicki Schmidt. “These compounds have been linked to a number of health concerns. Hospitalizations, emergency room visits and calls to poison control centers have increased everywhere these products are sold.”

Use Rising Quickly 

Spice is a common brand name for a synthetic cannabinoid, a chemically engineered version of THC, which is the active ingredient in marijuana. Synthetic cannabinoids have been linked to more than 1,600 calls to poison control centers in the first four months of this year, according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers. 

“The products are meant to create a similar reaction to marijuana,” says Dr. Anthony J. Scalzo, medical director of the Missouri Poison Control Center. “But in fact, patients often report the opposite—a fast, racing heartbeat, elevated blood pressure and nausea.”

In some instances, Schmidt says, the effects are even worse. “Sadly, a number of deaths have been reported across the country.”

Idaho Senator Denton Darrington thinks the rise of synthetic cannabinoids has, at least partially, been a result of successfully controlling other illicit drugs in his state. “We have tackled meth and other drugs, so users are finding other ways to get high.”

Use nationwide has drastically increased over the past three years. Poison control centers, which received 14 calls about the drugs in 2009, received 2,874 calls in 2010. If the calls continue at the current pace, there could be as many as 5,600 this year.

State lawmakers are acting quickly to curb the availability of these drugs. As of April 15, at least 24 states had banned synthetic cannabinoids. Kansas was the first to outlaw the use, possession or sale of synthetic cannabinoids. Schmidt said local law enforcement officials contacted her before the 2010 session with significant concerns about the new drug, which was being sprayed onto dried herbs and sold legally throughout the state. The 2010 law banned three chemical compounds, which are specific types of synthetic cannabinoids known to be in Spice.

Kentucky Representative John Tilley says in 2010 he made it a priority to get a ban passed. He wanted “to get it off the shelves as quickly as possible—it was a major concern that kids could walk up to the counter and buy it.  It just wasn’t acceptable.”

The drugs did not vanish so quickly in Kansas. After passing a law in 2010, numerous other compounds began appearing.

“The manufacturers of these compounds understand the laws,” Schmidt says, “and have demonstrated their ability and determination to stay several steps ahead of the law by transitioning away from scheduled compounds to uncontrolled compounds.”

Because these drugs are chemically engineered, the drug makers need only change one molecule to create a new compound that’s not covered by statute. Scientists have found at least a dozen synthetic cannabinoid compounds in various spice products and estimate there could be hundreds more.

The complexity of the chemical compounds makes it difficult to enact a broad ban on these substances, Darrington says. Experts from Idaho’s board of pharmacy worked with the state’s Criminal Justice Commission to design the statutory language. The 2011 law, which Darrington sponsored, passed unanimously in both the House and Senate.

This year, lawmakers in Kansas, Idaho and half a dozen other states have taken this  approach, writing laws that ban the general chemical classes associated with synthetic cannabinoids, instead of individually listing specific compounds.

New Year, New Drug

Other synthetic drugs drew the attention of lawmakers this year. Known on the street as bath salts, these chemically engineered substances are really just chemical cousins to the illicit drugs meth and ecstasy. When smoked or inhaled, they produce similar effects. Poison control centers documented 300 calls in 2010 and more than 1,800 calls in the first four months of this year. 

States lawmakers have been quick to ban these substances. As of April 15, 12 states had outlawed one or more of the different types of these substituted cathinones.

“We have been successful at snuffing out [substituted cathinones] before they become as serious a problem as synthetic cannabinoids had become,” says Kentucky’s Tilley. 

Like synthetic cannabinoids, these products are manufactured and marketed using sophisticated strategies. “They are labeled ‘not for human consumption’ which is just a way to evade scrutiny of law enforcement,” says Schmidt.

Many states are using the same general strategy of broadly banning entire classes of chemicals and any related substances, even those not yet detected by scientists and law enforcement agencies.

Federal Attention

The escalating use of these drugs has not gone unnoticed by federal drug enforcement officials. On March 1, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency placed five synthetic cannabinoids on the list of Schedule I controlled substances for up to 18 months while the agency determines if they should be banned permanently. U.S. Senator Charles Grassley also has introduced legislation to ban permanently the five substances identified by the DEA, plus additional synthetic cannabinoid substances.

Although the drug agency has yet to take action on any chemicals in bath salts, the director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy has expressed concern over them. “Although we lack sufficient data to understand exactly how prevalent the use of these stimulants is,” R. Gil Kerlikowske said earlier this year, “we know they pose a serious threat to the health and well-being of young people and anyone who may use them.”

U.S. Senator Charles Schumer introduced legislation in mid-February to add specific types of substituted cathinones to the list of federally controlled substances. The health and safety risks posed by chemically engineered drugs are not new to state legislatures. Lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) and phencyclidine (PCP) have been outlawed for more than 30 years. More recently, the health risks of meth use and production have been addressed by state lawmakers.

“We will remain adamant against this stuff,” Tilley says. “We are watching out for the next designer drug; I am sure a chemist is out there now creating the next drug, and we will be ready to tackle it.”

Alison Lawrence tracks synthetic drug issues for NCSL.