"If the history of combating drugs on our streets has shown us anything, it's that we need to address emerging drug epidemics head-on, before they destroy our communities," Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., wrote in an opinion piece in the New York Daily News on Wednesday. Schumer's new target: synthetic marijuana.
Schumer has introduced federal legislation to ban synthetic drugs. It's the sort of headline-friendly legislation that floated through the House and was expected to fly through the Senate -- until Schumer found unexpected opposition in Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., an ophthalmologist by training and son of GOP presidential hopeful Ron Paul.
Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, which supports legalizing marijuana, described the Schumer bill as "the old knee-jerk criminalize-it-first" kind of bill that has been a hallmark of America's failed war on drugs. Nadelmann is impressed that Paul "single-handedly put a hold on this bill."
Schumer is right about the dangers of synthetic marijuana. Products are marketed as incense or potpourri so that convenience stores can sell them to minors without asking for identification. News reports cite such scary side effects as seizures and kidney failure. Last year, poison control centers reported 6,900 cases involving users who got sick.
The legislation is named the David Mitchell Rozga Act, after an 18-year-old Iowan who committed suicide after using the drug. Co-sponsor Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, called the synthetic drugs "poison": "People are spraying chemicals on a pile of plant clippings, putting that in an envelope and selling it to kids."
The Drug Enforcement Administration temporarily has banned chemicals used in the new drugs. The Schumer bill would make the ban permanent. Problem?
In a letter to co-sponsors, Paul noted that many states properly have taken steps to ban synthetic drugs. Rand believes that states, not Washington, should enforce drug laws. He rightly criticized federal drug sentences as often "excessively severe."
Paul also warned that "an almost infinite number of synthetic drugs" can be produced to get around the law. A study in The Lancet reported that a United Kingdom ban on mephedrone -- a Schumer-targeted chemical -- had limited effect on availability and use. But the ban did drive trade to street dealers.
Quoth Schumer on Paul's maneuver to "hold" the bill by requiring 60 votes to bring the bill to the Senate floor: "One senator shouldn't be able to prevent a vote on something that 99 percent of Americans want."
Everyone but a wayward 1 percent wants the law? Hardly. A House bill passed 317-98. Opponents included members of the Congressional Black Caucus and 16 Republicans.
There's a change brewing in Congress. When politicians such as Schumer talk tough on drugs, a small but growing number of lawmakers consider Washington's rush to pass big-sounding laws, and they see too-big laws, too-big penalties and too-big failure.
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