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On Tuesday the House Judiciary Committee held a hearing on novel psychoactive substances (NPS), focusing on synthetic cannabinoids (aka “Spice,” “K2,” etc.), cathinones (aka “Bath Salts”), and opioids (fentanyl). The hearing included testimony from two law enforcement representatives, the father of a teenager who died tragically from drug-related causes, and Professor David Nichols, a medicinal chemistry researcher.

Though much of the opening testimony by Committee members and the perspectives echoed by law enforcement were reiterations of the same misinformed and proven to fail drug war ideology, even among them there was recognition that the system is broken. Dr. Nichols offered testimony grounded in science, as an expert with decades of experience studying different psychoactive compounds, but the committee failed to effectively make use of his expertise. 

Issues around NPS highlight flaws in the prohibition approach to drug control, most notably the shortcomings of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s scheduling of drugs according to their perceived “abuse potential” and “lack of evidence for medical use.” The lengthy process has more to do with advancing through various bureaucratic hurdles than an actual practice in science-led policy, and often has resulted in disastrous and unintended consequences like mass incarceration and the stifling of legitimate research. 

When committee hearings on new drug trends were held in the past, like for crack cocaine and later MDMA (aka “Ecstasy”) in the 1980’s, it was often a sign of impending legislative overreaction. While response was certainly needed, as there usually are genuine concerns raised by early indicators of potentially problematic trends in drug use, like sudden increases in emergency room visits and calls to poison control centers regarding previously unheard of substances. 

But the response to crack saw the rollout of mandatory minimum sentencing and the disproportion of harsher penalties compared to powder cocaine, which clear racial disparities of overincarceration caused generations of harm to the black community that reformers have spent decades working to reverse. And the rush to criminalize MDMA almost permanently stunted efforts at developing what may soon become the first approved treatment for PTSD, and with at least 22 veterans committing suicide every day relief may have been available much sooner if MDMA were not already Schedule I.

We’ve seen this play out before and it’s happening again – hyped up media coverage of what are usually the most rare and extreme (and sometimes completely false) horror stories involving new drugs alerts law enforcement officials. They claim “limited options” to combat the new “epidemics” without immediate designation of these poorly understood compounds to Schedule I of the controlled substances act, the strictest classification for drugs that don’t belong on the street. Though merely placing drugs in Schedule I does little to nothing toward eradicating illicit drug supply.

Next month in New York City, a summit on NPS will take place to gather experts from science, healthcare, media, and policy to share and promote dialogue on how to look beyond the prohibition approach to dealing with what is most certainly the future of drug use trends in the U.S. and around the world. 

Regulatory response to NPS is the next big issue for drug control. With the U.K set to enact the most overarching and unenforceable drug policy in response to NPS, here in the U.S. there’s still a chance to try something different.

Kevin Franciotti is a Program Associate at the Drug Policy Alliance.

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Author: Kevin Franciotti
Date Published: May 19, 2016
Published by Drug Policy Alliance