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Washington, D.C. – Senator Grassley (R-IA) held a hearing in the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary earlier today titled “Deadly Synthetic Drugs: The Need to Stay Ahead of the Poison Peddlers.” The hearing reflects the intention of members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, including Senator Grassley and Senator Feinstein (D-CA), to give the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and the Department of Justice greater latitude under federal law to prosecute people for distributing and selling new psychoactive substances (NPS) – often called “synthetic drugs,” “legal highs,” or “research chemicals.”

Representatives from the DEA, law enforcement and other invited witnesses nevertheless focused much of their remarks in favor of expediting legislative crackdowns on NPS. Advocates point out that years of government crackdowns have done little to reduce the availability of NPS or demand for these substances, which often come on the market as legal alternatives to illicit drugs.  In the U.S., NPS compounds have been routinely banned, incentivizing chemists to come up with slightly new formulations to evade existing laws. Advocates observe that this escalation between law enforcement and chemists has likely exacerbated health harms, as very little is known about the pharmacology and safety of NPS compounds that turn up in communities.

Today’s hearing devoted little attention to potential policy solutions that could reduce demand for NPS compounds or health harms associated with their use. The DEA and other hearing witnesses also conflated the rising prevalence of fentanyl and fentanyl related overdose deaths with the very different circumstances surrounding new psychoactive substances.  Fentanyl is a synthetic, rapid-acting opiate analgesic. It has been produced by pharmaceutical companies since the 1990s for the treatment of acute pain.

“If lawmakers are concerned about tackling the harms associated with these substances, they should look closely at the harm being caused by knee-jerk prohibition laws that incentivize chemists to manufacture more of these substances,” said Grant Smith, deputy director of national affairs with the Drug Policy Alliance. “The question that lawmakers should be asking is how do we reduce the demand for these substances and how do we prevent the fatalities. In part, this is going to mean addressing the fact that people are turning to synthetic substances to evade drug tests for marijuana and other illicit substances, and the fact that people are afraid to get help because of laws criminalizing drug use,” said Smith.

Advocates warn that sweeping legislative bans of NPS compounds could criminalize people for possessing substances that are not even known to science as having harms to health. Moreover, sweeping legislative bans of NPS compounds threaten to undermine research projects examining potential medicinal uses of these substances. When Congress bans an NPS compound it places the substance into Schedule I of the federal Controlled Substances Act. When a compound is placed into Schedule I, scientific researchers who want to study a Schedule I substance for potential medical breakthroughs face costly federal regulatory burdens before any research can begin. The costs, permitting and reporting requirements are so onerous that many researchers are deterred from working with Schedule I substances, and many research institutions choose not to support Schedule I research projects.

Dr. David E. Nichols, Adjunct Professor of Chemical Biology and Medicinal Chemistry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill testified last month before the House Judiciary Committee on this subject and his Schedule I research projects stating that “when a compound is placed into Schedule 1, very few investigators are interested in pursuing research with it, except in certain specific instances…All of (the Schedule I permit) costs and regulatory burdens can be onerous…There needs to be balance between the needs of research and enforcement, so that potential new therapies are not lost by restricting access to novel compounds.”

Advocates urge lawmakers not to repeat the mistakes of the past with counterproductive criminalization measures that expand the use of mandatory sentences and could deter promising Schedule I research but instead develop policy responses in consultation with scientific experts and grounded in the best science.

“Criminalizing synthetic substances and expecting law enforcement to deal with them, without first addressing the underlying reasons why people are using them, won’t solve the problem,” said Grant Smith, deputy director of national affairs with the Drug Policy Alliance. “More sweeping bans will mean that more people will be subjected to criminal sanctions, but the core reasons why people use these substances won’t get addressed. We need policy solutions grounded in the best possible science and focused on dealing with the health needs of people who use synthetic substances,” said Smith.

In New York City this week (June 9th and June 10th), the Drug Policy Alliance is hosting a free summit that will explore the challenges that NPS pose for policymakers, media covering these issues, medical and social service providers and people who use these substances.  New Strategies for New Psychoactive Substances: A Public Health Approach will explore what is currently known about NPS, identify areas for future research, discuss strategies for intervening when use becomes harmful and for new forms of drug regulation, and explore how messaging and media about NPS can become more constructive. Check out the draft agenda here. Summit organizers intend for the event to lay the foundation for a series of recommendations for policymakers, medical and social service providers, and media based in evidence rather than fear.

This event is free and open to the public but seats are limited and registration is required: http://newstrategies4nps.eventbrite.com

What:             New Strategies for New Psychoactive Substances: A Public Health Approach

Where:           June 9th, 7:00 – 9:00 pm
                        John Jay College of Criminal Justice
                        524 W 59th Street
                        New York, NY 10019

                        June 10th, 8:30 am – 5:30 pm
                        The New School – The Bob and Sheila Hoerle Lecture Hall, UL105,
                        University Center
                        63 Fifth Avenue
                        New York, NY 10003

Date Published: June 7, 2016
Published by Drug Policy Alliance