Senate Hearing on Synthetic Drugs Offered Failed Drug War Policies of the Past

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September 26, 2013 - By Maggie Taylor

Yesterday, the U.S. Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control convened a briefing to discuss the dangers of synthetic drugs. The caucus has no legislative authority and acts more as a vehicle to keep drug war rhetoric alive than as a catalyst for honest debate about drug policy, and today’s hearing featured more of the same scare tactics we have heard before from Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Chuck Grassley (R- IA), and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN).

But today’s hearing illuminated the biggest problem with the Caucus’s efforts: members are able to correctly identify the risks to public health posed by synthetic drugs, but they are incapable of accepting that the logical solution to these problems is robust regulation, not criminalization.

Sen. Feinstein named youth access to synthetic drugs as a serious issue for policymakers. Witness Michael Botticelli, deputy director for the Office of National Drug Control Policy, noted that the manufacture of synthetic drugs is “devoid of quality control and government oversight,” posing serious physical risks to people who choose to use these substances. And it became abundantly apparent throughout the hearing that none of the expert witnesses could offer any insight as to the medical effects – either positive or negative – of these drugs.

It is unfortunate that members of the Senate Narcotics Caucus are unable to come to the logical conclusion that regulation – rather than criminalization – is the best approach to combat synthetic drug problems. Robust regulation would work to keep these substances from being marketed toward or consumed by youth. Regulation would ensure that people who purchase synthetic drugs are ensured of their chemical contents and safety. And prevention efforts that offer evidence-based, honest education about potential risks – not just scare tactics – would go much farther in helping adults decide for themselves whether to consume synthetic drugs.

The Department of Justice is beginning to understand that prohibition is a losing battle. They articulated this in their recent decision to allow Washington and Colorado to proceed with implementation of their laws to regulate marijuana like alcohol. The DOJ even admitted, for the first time, that regulation could further federal interests in a way that prohibition can’t, specifically by curbing youth access and keeping organized crime out of the drug trade.

It’s time for the Senate Narcotics Caucus to get the memo: prohibition has failed, and the era of robust regulation is here.

Maggie Taylor is a policy associate with the Drug Policy Alliance.

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