LOUISVILLE, Ky. — U.S. Sen. Rand Paul is trying to block legislation aimed at banning synthetic drugs, citing his preference for state and local authorities to tackle a problem that the White House drug czar said Thursday is becoming a growing threat to the nation’s youth.
Various measures would ban synthetic drugs liked “bath salts” and other compounds that mimic marijuana, cocaine and methamphetamines. One version has passed the House, and White House drug czar Gil Kerlikowske urged the Senate to follow suit.
Kerlikowske made his latest pitch Thursday in a conference call that also featured a woman from Paul’s hometown. Amy Stillwell of Bowling Green, Ky., spoke of her family’s scare last year after her daughter tried synthetic marijuana and wound up in the hospital.
“We simply cannot afford to wait when it comes to the health and safety of young people,” Kerlikowske said.
Paul spokeswoman Moira Bagley cited a couple of reasons for the Kentucky Republican’s objections to the federal effort.
“First, law enforcement of most drug laws can and should be local and state issues,” she said in a statement. “Also, federal mandatory minimum sentences are harmful to the idea of true justice, and have been shown to be discriminatory against minorities.”
At least 39 states have tried crackdowns on synthetic marijuana and bath salts, banning one or both of the drugs, according to the National Conference of StateLegislatures.
Legislation across the country has tended to target specific versions of the substances. However, synthetic drug makers have tried to circumvent those laws by altering the chemical makeup of the substances, drug enforcement officials say. As a result, measures are now targeting entire classes of substances to prevent new formulations of synthetic drugs from falling outside the law.
On the federal level, the Drug Enforcement Administration has used its emergency authority to temporarily ban several chemicals used to produce synthetic marijuana and synthetic stimulants, including bath salts.
Kerlikowske said congressional action is needed for permanent bans.
In Kentucky, lawmakers have passed bills to ban synthetic marijuana and bath salts, but the substances remain a moving target as manufacturers alter the formulas to try to evade the law, said Van Ingram, executive director of the Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policy. Lawmakers will consider a broader measure this year, he said.
Still, the federal government needs to weigh in with its own offensive, he said.
She says her daughter gave in to peer pressure and took one puff of the substance, and added she is doing fine now.
“A federal law is needed so the DEA can deal with this issue at the manufacturing and wholesale level, while the state and communities deal with the retail level,” Ingram said.
Paul, a tea party favorite, is using a procedural maneuver to try to block Senate bills seeking to block the use of certain chemicals in synthetic drugs. His effort would fail if supporters can muster 60 votes to cut off debate. Bagley said such a vote could always be scheduled to see “if the bill is as bipartisan as Democrat leadership is touting.”
She said no decision has been made on whether Paul would try to block the House bill, which she said differs slightly from Senate versions.
Kerlikowske cited a survey from the National Institute on Drug Abuse to show the spread of synthetic drugs. The survey found that one in nine 12th-graders reported using synthetic marijuana in the past year.
Nationwide, poison control centers have reported sharp increases in the number of calls related to synthetic drugs.
“The nurses, pharmacists and doctors who respond to these calls said these substances are among the worst they’ve ever seen,” said Deborah A. Carr, executive director of the American Association of Poison Control Centers.
Officials said the powdery substance sold as bath salts mimic the effects of cocaine, ecstasy and LSD. It can be snorted, injected or mixed with drinks for food. The chemicals can cause hallucinations, paranoia, rapid heart rates, violent behavior and suicidal thoughts.
Synthetic marijuana contains organic leaves coated with chemicals that provide a marijuana-like high when smoked. The product is marketed under various brands include Spice and K2.
The synthetic drugs can be purchased on the Internet and in some tobacco and smoke shops, drug paraphernalia shops, gas stations and convenience stores.
Stillwell said her daughter Ashley, a recent high school graduate at the time, gave in to peer pressure and tried synthetic marijuana last summer. The fake marijuana was purchased at a hookah bar, the mother said.
“She took one hit of this … and within about three minutes she was pretty much rendered paralyzed,” Stillwell said.
Her friends poured water on her and shook her but she remained unresponsive, Stillwell said. The girl’s parents picked her up and took her to the hospital. Now, about a half-year later, her daughter is doing fine, she said.
“Fortunately we’re very grateful she does not have any lingering effects at all,” she said.