H.R. 3537, Synthetic Drug Control Act of 2015

H.R. 3537

Synthetic Drug Control Act of 2015

Date
September 26, 2016 (114th Congress, 2nd Session)

Staff Contact
John Huston

Floor Situation

On­­­­ Monday, September 26, 2016, the House will likely consider H.R. 3537, Synthetic Drug Control Act of 2015, under suspension of the rules. H.R. 3537 was introduced on September 17, 2015, by Rep. Charlie Dent (R-PA) and was referred to the Committee on Energy and Congress, and in addition, to the Committee on the Judiciary. The Committee on Energy and Commerce ordered the bill reported by voice vote on September 21, 2016.

Bill Summary

H.R. 3537 places a number of synthetic drug compounds on Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act, including drugs that induce effects like those induced by cannabis, PCP, and Ritalin. The bill also amends the Federal Analogue Act to provide to criminalize the sale, manufacture, import, and distribution of drugs – not simple possession.

Background

Synthetic drugs, as opposed to natural drugs, are chemically produced in a laboratory. Their chemical structure can be either identical to or different from naturally occurring drugs, and their effects are designed to mimic or even enhance those of natural drugs. When produced clandestinely, they are not typically controlled pharmaceutical substances intended for legitimate medical use. Designer drugs are a form of synthetic drugs. They contain slightly modified molecular structures of illegal or controlled substances, and they are modified in order to circumvent existing drug laws.[1]

From 2009 to 2011, synthetic drug abuse was reported to have dramatically increased. During this time period, calls to poison control centers for incidents relating to harmful effects of synthetic cannabinoids (such as “K2” and “Spice”) and stimulants (such as “bath salts”) increased at what some considered to be an alarming rate. The number of hospital emergency department visits involving synthetic cannabinoids more than doubled from 2010 to 2011. In 2012 and 2013, however, the number of calls to poison control centers for incidents relating to harmful effects of synthetic cannabinoids and synthetic stimulants decreased. Calls regarding bath salts have declined each year since 2011, while calls regarding synthetic cannabinoids have increased since the drops in 2012 and 2013. A recent survey indicates that annual prevalence rates for use of synthetic cannabinoids are down over the last two years while bath salt use remained low. Government and media reports indicate that fentanyl, a synthetic opioid 50-100 times stronger than morphine, is rising in popularity as well as various synthetic cannabinoids.

The reported harmful effects of synthetic substances range from nausea to drug-induced psychosis. Due to the unpredictable nature of synthetic drugs and of human consumption of these drugs, the true effects of many of these drugs are unknown. Many states have responded to synthetic drug abuse by passing laws banning certain synthetic cannabinoids and stimulants.

In 2011, the Attorney General—through the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA)—used his temporary scheduling authority to place five synthetic cannabinoids and three synthetic stimulants on Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act (CSA). Concern over the reported increase in use of certain synthetic cannabinoids and stimulants resulted in legislative action to schedule specific substances. The Synthetic Drug Abuse Prevention Act of 2012 added five structural classes of substances in synthetic cannabinoids (and their analogues) as well as 11 synthetic stimulants and hallucinogens to Schedule I of the CSA. In addition, the act extended the DEA’s authority to temporarily schedule substances. In April 2013, then-Attorney General Holder—through the DEA and in consultation with the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)—took administrative action to permanently place methylone on Schedule I of the CSA. This bill adds a list of known synthetic drugs identified by the DEA into Schedule I.

The CSA assigns various plants, drugs, and chemicals (such as narcotics, stimulants, depressants, hallucinogens, and anabolic steroids) to one of five schedules based on the substance’s medical use, potential for abuse, and safety or dependence liability. Schedule I contains substances that have no currently accepted medical use and cannot safely be made available to the public under a prescription, while Schedules II, III, IV, and V include substances that have recognized medical uses and may be manufactured, distributed, and used in accordance with the CSA. The order of the schedules reflects substances that are progressively less dangerous and addictive.[2]

According to the bill sponsor, “The use and abuse of synthetic drugs is having a devastating impact on families and communities across the country. Many of these drugs possess similar or greater narcotic effects than other illegal drugs, like heroin or PCP, but are distributed through legal channels on the basis that the specific compounds are not expressly prohibited.”[3]

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[1] See CRS Report, “Synthetic Drugs: Overview and Issues for Congress,” May 3, 2016.
[2] See CRS Report, “The Controlled Substances Act: Regulatory Requirements,” December 13, 2012.
[3] See Rep. Charlie Dent Press Release, “Representatives Dent, Himes Norton and Jolly – Retail Sales of Synthetic Drugs Must End,” September 18, 2015.

Cost

A Congressional Budget Office (CBO) cost estimate is currently not available.

Additional Information

For questions or further information please contact John Huston with the House Republican Policy Committee by email or at 6-5539.