Ban on "bath salts," synthetic marijuana delayed in Senate
■ House-passed legislation would add them to the list of controlled substances that have no medical use.
By Charles Fiegl amednews staff — Posted Jan. 9, 2012
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Washington -- House lawmakers in December 2011 approved legislation that would prohibit the sale of synthetic marijuana and other drugs known as "bath salts" and "plant food," which have been compared to dangerous hallucinogenic drugs when used illicitly. The measure, however, faces an indefinite delay in the Senate due to a lawmaker's hold on the bill.
Representatives on Dec. 8 voted 317-98 to ban the synthetic drugs, which can mimic the effects of marijuana, cocaine and methamphetamines. Sen. Charles Grassley (R, Iowa) has introduced similar legislation in the Senate, but the bill is being held up by an objection from Sen. Rand Paul, MD (R, Ky.), according to Grassley's office. Dr. Paul's office did not respond to repeated inquiries seeking comment on the legislative hold, which senators sometimes place on bills over matters unrelated to the legislation in question.
Organizations representing physicians and public health officials support the House-passed legislation because they say there is no known medicinal use for the substances. The number of patients seeking treatment in hospital emergency departments after using the synthetic drugs also has skyrocketed during the last year.
The American Assn. of Poison Control Centers reported 5,853 calls to poison centers that were related to bath salt exposure from January to November 2011, a dramatic increase from 303 such calls in 2010. Centers reported that they received 6,348 calls related to synthetic marijuana in 2011.
Responding to concerns about the abuse of these products, the American Medical Association in June adopted a policy to support a national ban.
"These chemicals, when inhaled or injected, cause effects similar to those caused by cocaine and methamphetamine, including paranoia, hallucinations and suicidal thoughts, which have led to self-mutilation, violent behavior and several deaths," wrote AMA Executive Vice President and CEO James L. Madara, MD, in a September letter to the House supporting legislation banning bath salts.
Rep. Charlie Dent (R, Pa.), the House bill's sponsor, said he first learned about the dangers of the synthetic drug from his constituents. One man had injected himself with bath salts, suffered liver failure and was hospitalized for more than two weeks. In May, another man abusing bath salts fired a gun out his window and later told police he thought he was being watched by people on the roof.
"A man in Scranton, Pa., stabbed a priest, and another jumped out a three-story window, both high on bath salts," Dent said. "Several deaths from West Virginia to Florida to Pennsylvania to Iowa have been attributed to abuse of synthetic drugs."
Substances are marketed as bath salts or plant food with familiar-sounding brand names, such as K2, Spice and Vanilla Sky, he said. More than 30 states have responded by enacting laws banning the synthetic drugs.
Several members of Congress opposed the legislation as it was written because of its potential chilling effect on scientific research. If the bill is passed, the synthetic drugs will be placed on a list of controlled substances, for which researchers need a license to obtain samples for studies.
"These drugs need to be controlled, but they need to be controlled in such a way that there is no harm done to the vital scientific and medical research that we count on," said Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D, Calif.).