Bath salts and synthetic cannabinoids would become schedule I controlled substances

NEW ORLEANS, La.- Several states, including Louisiana, are stepping up the fight against the latest designer drugs – synthetic cannabinoids and bath salts – in the wake of high call volumes to poison control centers in recent years.

House Bill 12 would classify synthetic cannabinoids and substituted cathinones (bath salts) as Schedule I substances in the Uniform Controlled Dangerous Substance Law, placing them next to heroin and MDMA (ecstasy) at the top of the restrictive drug pyramid.

Rep. Ricky Templet (R – Gretna), the bill’s primary author, claims HB 12 is an emphatic boost to last year’s HB 173, which amended the state’s then marijuana laws so synthetic cannabinoids would command fines and criminal penalties similar to traditional cannabis.

In addition to placing bath salts under state regulation, HB 12 provides a more comprehensive definition of what compounds are outlawed. The intent is to stop producers from distributing derivatives of essentially the same substance and side-stepping regulations.

The American Association for Poison Control Centers has received more than 4,500 calls since 2010 concerning the use of synthetic cannabinoid. And in January, Governor Jindal declared his intention to classify these substances under a Schedule I ban. Several other states have announced similar intentions, including Florida, Alabama, Utah, and Kentucky.

The federal Drug Enforcement Administration is equally concerned with synthetic cannabinoids, and it has initiated a year-long emergency ban on five chemicals used to create synthetic cannabinoids. They claim this will protect public health and safety until they discern whether the chemicals warrant permanent regulation.

Previous attempts at prohibition have been unsuccessful, since manufacturers no longer able to sell synthetic cannabinoids as herbal incense started labeling the drug as aromatic potpourri. They also added a warning label stating the product is “not for human consumption.”

According to Dan D’Amico, an economics professor at Loyola University New Orleans, the behavior of such firms operating in a legal grey area is hardly surprising.

“Whereas traditional legitimate market producers compete against other producers on quality margins as they are perceived in the mind’s eyes of consumers, black market producers compete on being stealth and/or complying with regulations primarily and consumer perceived quality secondarily. Consumers are the real folks who suffer most.”

In an attempt to mimic the high experienced with traditional marijuana, producers of synthetic cannabinoids spray a blend of herbs and spices with compounds whose chemical structures are reportedly similar to THC, the primary psychoactive ingredient in traditional marijuana. Originally developed to determine marijuana’s effects on different receptors in laboratory animals, this drug has the unintended effects of speeding heart rates, raising blood pressure, and inciting nausea.

Dan Francis of the Retail Compliance Association (RCA), claims synthetic cannabinoids first appeared on the market approximately eleven years ago in Europe. The RCA is a group of American retailers who defend the rights of stores to sell synthetic cannabinoids.

Since spreading to the US, the synthetic cannabinoids industry has quickly blossomed into a $5 billion per year industry, despite persistent regulatory backlash.

In a congressional address earlier this month, Mr. Francis explained that lawmakers and the media alike are ignorant to the important scientific distinctions between marijuana and synthetic cannabinoids.

“These compounds are for the most part very simple compounds, that have nothing whatsoever to do
with natural cannabis or THC… The very basis of many lawmakers negative opinions is simply that the name is similar to cannabis.”

Francis considers HB 12 and other similar legislation to be ill-conceived, over-reactions on the behalf of legislators, who advocate a more thorough understanding of the products before allowing them to be sold on the open market.

“We don’t disagree that we need to study them, but these are incredible things that could lead to potential cures and therapies,” says Dan Francis, RCA’s executive director.

Francis also warns that the unintended consequences of prohibition could cause more harm than good.

“Cartels and drug lords who would be the ones that replaced the legitimate businesses if a ban is passed.”

Although adamant defenders of retailers that sell synthetic cannabinoids, RCA has yet to defend the market for substituted cathinones, more commonly known as “bath salts”.

Unlike synthetic cannabinoids, bath salts have developed a reputation as powerful stimulants. An experience taking bath salts is meant to reflect a high similar to cocaine or MDMA, though recently medical professions have drawn a more direct comparison to methamphetamine and even PCP.

According to Mark Ryan, Director of the Louisiana Poison Center, the effects of bath salts are some of worst he has witnessed in two decades.

Last year, Louisiana centers responded to at least 85 instances, more than 54% of the national total. In 2011, there are have already been ten times number as many cases nationwide.

“These products create a very severe paranoia that we believe could cause users to harm themselves or others,” he said.

House Bill 12 will be heard on Wednesday, May 11th by the Criminal Justice Committee.

Justin Spittler is a research assistant with the Pelican Institute for Public Policy. Spittler studies economics at Loyola University in New Orleans, and you can follow him on twitter.