The House voted Thursday to ban synthetic drugs nicknamed "bath salts" and other compounds that mimic marijuana, cocaine and methamphetamines.
Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pa., said his legislation identifies chemical compounds that affect the brain in ways similar to THC, the active ingredient in marijuana. They would be added to the highly restrictive Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act.
The bill also bans chemical compounds in synthetic drugs marketed as "bath salts" or "plant food" and under brand names such as K2 and Spice that have been used as substitutes for cocaine and other narcotics. They are now sold legally in some states.
Dent said that in the past year "there's been a sharp increase in the number of new reports detailing horrific stories of individuals high on synthetic drugs." He cited a case in Scranton, Pa., where a man high on bath salts stabbed a priest and another incident where someone jumped out of a three-story window after using them.
Dent's bill also expands from one-and-a-half to three years the authority of the Drug Enforcement Administration to temporarily ban a drug while it investigates its potential danger to public health. The Senate has yet to take up a similar bill.
These designer drugs can have serious side effects, said Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., causing convulsions, anxiety attacks and dangerously elevated heart rates.
The vote was 317-98, with some Democrats saying the bill went too far in restricting chemicals that could be valuable to researchers looking for cures to diseases such as Parkinson's disease. When a drug is placed on Schedule I, said California Democrat Zoe Lofgren, "It becomes difficult to obtain not only for illegal purposes but for researchers who wish to study its pharmaceutical and medical potential."
The Drug Policy Alliance, a group that promotes alternatives to harsh drug sentences, said at least 40 states have already passed laws criminalizing Spice and other synthetic drugs and that the bill could subject more people to federal prosecution and lengthy prison terms for distributing small quantities of synthetic drugs.