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Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Synthetic Drugs: Overview and Issues for Congress

Lisa N. Sacco
Analyst in Illicit Drugs and Crime Policy

Kristin Finklea
Acting Section Research Manager and 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, Congress has demonstrated a renewed concern with the issue.

From 2009-2011, synthetic drug abuse was reported to have dramatically increased. During this time period, calls to poison control centers for incidents relating to harmful effects of synthetic cannabinoids (such as “K2” and “Spice”) and stimulants (such as “bath salts”) increased at what some considered to be an alarming rate. The number of hospital emergency department visits involving synthetic cannabinoids more than doubled from 2010 to 2011. In 2012, however, the number of calls to poison control centers for incidents relating to harmful effects of synthetic cannabinoids and synthetic stimulants decreased. The Monitoring the Future (MTF) survey results from 2012 indicate that annual prevalence rates for use of “bath salts” among college students and adults ages 18-50 was “very low.” In contrast, MTF reports that, among 12
th graders, synthetic marijuana is the “second most widely used class of illicit drug after marijuana.” Media reports indicate that a synthetic substance known as “molly,” a psychoactive drug that may be similar or identical to MDMA (3,4-Methylenedioxymethamphetamine), appears to be gaining popularity among youth. In the summer of 2013, several deaths and drug overdoses have been attributed to molly.

The reported harmful effects of synthetic 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 many of these drugs are unknown. Many states have responded to the synthetic drug abuse issue by passing synthetic drug laws banning certain synthetic cannabinoids and stimulants.

In 2011, the Attorney General—through the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA)—used his temporary scheduling authority to place five synthetic cannabinoids and three synthetic stimulants on Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act (CSA). Concern over the reported increase in use of certain synthetic cannabinoids and stimulants resulted in legislative action to schedule specific substances. The Synthetic Drug Abuse Prevention Act of 2012—Subtitle D of Title XI of the Food and Drug Administration Safety and Innovation Act (P.L. 112-144)—added five structural classes of substances in synthetic cannabinoids (and their analogues) as well as 11 synthetic stimulants and hallucinogens to Schedule I of the CSA. In addition, the act extended the DEA’s authority to temporarily schedule substances. In April 2013, Attorney General Holder— through the DEA and in consultation with the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)—took administrative action to permanently place methylone on Schedule I of the CSA. Most recently in May 2013, Attorney General Holder—again through the DEA—used his temporary scheduling authority to place three additional synthetic cannabinoids on Schedule I of the CSA.

In considering permanent placement of 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 placing additional synthetic drugs on Schedule I may hinder future medical research. In addition, policymakers may consider whether it is more efficient to place these drugs on Schedule I of the CSA or to treat them as analogue controlled substances under the Controlled Substances Analogue Enforcement Act. In considering enforcement challenges identified by the DEA, Congress may consider whether to amend the CSA to better facilitate enforcement action against the illicit synthetic drug market.

Date of Report: September 16, 2013
Number of Pages: 22
Order Number: R42066
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