Grassley, Schumer Bill Bans Dangerous & Deceptive Synthetic Drugs

Senator Chuck Grassley – July 15, 2016

WASHINGTON – Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley and Senator Chuck Schumer led a bipartisan group of senators in introducing legislation aimed at controlling dangerous synthetic substances marketed as alternatives to illicit drugs.  The Dangerous Synthetic Drug Control Act bans 22 synthetic chemicals including 11 used to create synthetic marijuana, often marketed as “K2” or “Spice,” as well as three derivatives of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid estimated to be 100 times more powerful than morphine that has been associated with numerous overdose outbreaks.

“Synthetic drugs continue to cause significant harm to communities across the country including those in Iowa.  At a recent Judiciary Committee hearing, we heard the heartbreaking story of how a young Iowan took his own life while under the violent influence of K2 the very first time he used it.  Our bill cracks down on these dangerous substances by permanently controlling them under federal law.  It’s an important first step to preventing further loss of innocent life to these dangerous and deceiving drugs,” Grassley said.

Abuse and misuse of synthetic drugs represents an emerging and ongoing public health and safety threat in the United States, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration.  These substances are designed in laboratories to mimic the effects of known controlled substances, thereby circumventing drug controls.  Many are marketed to young people, sold in packages with bright colors and cartoons, and in “head shops” and other legitimate establishments.  Poison control centers have received a 95 percent increase in calls related to synthetic drugs in recent years, with more than 8,000 calls in 2015 alone.

The Dangerous Synthetic Drug Control Act adds 22 synthetic substances to schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act, the appropriate classification for substances with a high potential for abuse, no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States, and a lack of accepted safety for use under medical supervision. Placing these synthetic substances on schedule I strengthens law enforcement’s ability to prosecute traffickers.

In Iowa, many of these substances have been encountered by law enforcement and present an imminent public health threat to Iowans.  For example, on February 18, 2014, the Governor’s Office of Drug Control Policy issued a Synthetic Drug Alert relating to one of these substances that was linked to three deaths in 2013.  More recently, on June 23, 2016, the United States Attorney for the Northern District of Iowa announced charges against an Iowa City head shop owner for selling another one of these substances.

Grassley convened a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the problem of synthetic drugs in June.  Among the witnesses who testified was Mike Rozga of Indianola, whose son David killed himself after a suffering an acute reaction to K2.

Grassley has successfully pushed for action to protect the public from the dangers of synthetic drugs for many years.  In 2011, the Judiciary Committee passed his bill, the David Mitchell Rozga Act, which placed a series of other chemicals used to make K2 on schedule I and extended the time for which a substance can be temporarily scheduled by the DEA to protect the public.  The bill became law as part of the Synthetic Drug Abuse Prevention Act of 2012.

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33 Suspected of Overdosing on Synthetic Marijuana in Brooklyn

New York Times – July 12, 2016

There is a word that local residents and workers use to describe a group of drug users whose presence they say has grown around a busy Brooklyn transit hub: zombies. What was once a few familiar faces has turned into a tribe of strangers, walking around, staggering and looking lost, in the throes, it is believed, of the ill effects of K2, a synthetic drug that officials in New York have been working hard to eradicate.

The problem in the neighborhood has gotten to be such that a manager of an urban farm nearby, tired of the smoke wafting onto the property, posted two hand-painted wooden signs with a simple message: “No Smoking K2.”

On Tuesday, the longstanding problem became a local crisis on this gritty patch, on the border of two developing neighborhoods, Bedford-Stuyvesant and Bushwick. In the area around the subway station at Myrtle Avenue and Broadway, emergency workers transported 33 people who were suspected of overdosing on K2 to hospitals, the police said. The powerful drug, also known as Spice or synthetic marijuana, has grown in popularity in recent years despite public warnings.

Eight people were taken from the Stockton Street area to Woodhull Medical Center suffering from “altered mental states,” lethargy and respiratory issues around 9:40 a.m., a spokesman for the Fire Department said. Others were found in the surrounding area.

“It’s like a scene out of a zombie movie, a horrible scene,” said Brian Arthur, 38, who watched three people collapse as he made his way to work in the morning and began live-streaming the episode on Facebook. “This drug truly paralyzed people.” (Watch the video. Contains vulgar language.)

Even hours after the first call came in, a few erratic people could still be seen staggering around the streets under the train tracks. Some fought back against gravity by bracing their arms on parked cars or light poles. A few toppled to the ground. A video that Mr. Arthur streamed on Facebook captured responders helping an unsteady man into an ambulance; nearby, another slumped soporifically against a fire hydrant.

Pairs of police officers walked the blocks around Broadway and Myrtle Avenue, checking the vital signs of men they found unconscious. Anyone who was unresponsive was loaded onto a stretcher and taken away in an ambulance.

K2 has been around for many years, but its pervasiveness and popularity with homeless people caused health officials to warn of a public health crisis last summer. In 2015, New York City had more than 6,000 emergency room visits involving the drug and two deaths, according to the health department.

After months of raids and arrests, and new legislation in the fall that banned synthetic cannabinoids and threatened businesses and owners who sold K2 with closings, hefty fines and jail time, officials announced an 85 percent reduction in K2-related emergency room visits in May.

Social service providers, however, have said that enforcement in some areas has simply caused some sellers and buyers to move to different communities. Regulars of the area around the transit hub say the use of K2 has bloomed into a larger problem in the last two to three months. “You can smell it,” said Jason Reis, 34, the manager of the Bushwick City Farm, who posted signs in front of the urban green space about a week ago. “The way people are acting. They smoke it openly. And you can see them rolling it.”

Mr. Reis described an influx of people roaming the side streets around the subway station, particularly the quiet Stockton Street block where the farm is located, sitting on benches and stoops or in front of stores, rolling and smoking K2 cigarettes, leaving trash and empty K2 packets with their garish exteriors behind, and even urinating and defecating in public.

Mr. Reis said he placed the signs out of concern for the children who frequent the farm to garden and play basketball. “We were just getting a little fed up with it,” he said.

The police said they had recently targeted the area for arrests and seizures of K2. Residents said the drug used to be available at convenience stores in the area, but is no longer visible on shelves.

City Councilman Robert E. Cornegy Jr., who represents part of the area, said that he had heard from constituents about people “bugging out” and making drug sales as they waited for buses or trains. Dealers, he said, use the bustling intersection, which is shaded by the overhead subway tracks, to provide cover for their illicit activity.

“You can assimilate into the hustle and bustle, and that’s part of the problem,” Mr. Cornegy, a Democrat, said. “It’s very difficult to track certain behaviors in an area like that without overpolicing, which nobody wants.”

Nury Rodriguez, 55, a hairstylist at A Cut Above, on Stockton Street, said she had grown accustomed to the group of men congregating on the street in the morning. Usually they loiter and smoke all day. Some “act crazy,” she said. On Tuesday morning, she was surprised to see a few falling to the ground.

“It’s very scary because you never see something like that,” Ms. Rodriguez said. “They look like they’re going to die. They can’t help themselves.”

Painkiller That Killed Prince Part of Dangerous Wave of New Synthetic Drugs

The Washington Diplomat – July 1, 2016

The recent overdose death of rock legend Prince has brought renewed focus on the dangers posed by synthetic opioids, laboratory-created narcotics tweaked by chemists to produce potentially lethal highs while skirting U.S. drug laws.

Prince Rogers Nelson, 57, died April 21 from an overdose of fentanyl, a drug often used to quell pain in cancer patients when traditional opioids prove ineffective.

Despite its legitimate medical uses, fentanyl has acquired a growing reputation as a dangerous street drug thanks to at least a dozen synthetic variants now available to users, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).

And fentanyl is only one of numerous synthetic opioids and designer drugs now flooding the illicit drug market in the United States, DEA acting chief Chuck Rosenberg warned during a U.S. Senate hearing June 7.

“We are trying to keep up with a picture that changes almost every day,” Rosenberg testified. “We’ve identified something like 400 new psychoactive substances over the last four or five years.”

Another synthetic opioid, U-47700, has been connected to at least 50 deaths nationwide, but is so new to the black market that the DEA has not yet moved to control it, according to the Associated Press.

Synthetic narcotics are dangerous because their potency can far outstrip traditional opioids. For example, fentanyl is 25 to 40 times more potent than heroin, and 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine, said Dr. Mitra Ahadpour. She is a medical officer with the Center for Substance Abuse Treatment in the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Rosenberg testified that “fentanyl is so dangerous we’ve had to instruct our agents that if they touch it or inhale it accidentally, they can die.”

Several states reported sharp increases in overdose deaths caused by fentanyl and its analogs in 2014, a health advisory from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention noted. Ohio reported 514 fentanyl-related deaths in 2014 compared to 92 in 2013, while Maryland had 185 fentanyl deaths in 2014 compared to 58 the year before.

Ahadpour explained that “if someone is not opioid-tolerant, and uses either pharmaceutical or illicit fentanyl, you have a very high increased chance of respiratory depression and dying. Their breathing slows down, it goes to shallow breathing and then they stop breathing.”

There’s wide variation in the potency of these synthetic drugs, and often they are cut with other illicit drugs, Ahadpour added. A user might buy heroin not knowing that it has been cut with fentanyl to increase its potency.

Eleanor Artigiani, deputy director of policy and governmental affairs with the University of Maryland’s Center for Substance Abuse Research, said, “They may think they’re getting heroin, or they’re just buying a Xanax pill off the street, when it’s actually one of these other substances.”

Artigiani added: “From what I’ve been hearing recently, sometimes even the people selling these drugs don’t know exactly what’s in them either. It’s like Russian roulette, because you don’t really know what you’re getting or what effect it’s going to have on you.”

Toxicology tests concluded that Prince died from a fentanyl overdose, although the medical examiner’s report did not say whether the fentanyl was prescription or an illicit analog, CNN reported.

Designer drugs are typically based on medications that have been around for decades, Artigiani said.

Fentanyl was first created in Belgium in the late 1950s, the DEA says, while U-47700 was developed in the 1970s by the pharmaceutical company Upjohn as a potential alternative for morphine.

Black market drug makers come across the formula for a drug, and then tweak the molecule slightly so that it has the same effect on people but isn’t technically the same substance, Artigiani explained.

“There’s a journal article or a patent document or something that gets produced,” she said. “Illicit chemists find it and reproduce it or tweak the molecules to look for other kinds of things that aren’t illegal, that haven’t been scheduled yet.”

Other synthetic opioids on the streets include substances with names like W-18, AH-7921 and MT-45, according to congressional testimony provided by James Hall, an epidemiologist with the Center for Applied Research on Substance Use and Health Disparities at Nova Southeastern University in Miami.

Illicit drug manufacturers also produce other categories of designer drugs besides synthetic opioids, Hall said, including synthetic versions of cannabinoids, stimulants and hallucinogens.

Nearly all synthetic opioids and other designer drugs are manufactured in China, U.S. National Drug Control Policy Director Michael Botticelli testified before the Senate.

The designer drugs enter the United States either through the mail or across the Mexican or Canadian border, he said, and often are sold at head shops and other retail stores.

State and federal lawmakers are reviewing legislation designed to improve response against new synthetic narcotics, Botticelli said, and the United States is leading discussions with international partners to improve the global response to these drugs.

But right now, law enforcement often is several steps behind the traffickers because U.S. laws aren’t flexible enough to quickly outlaw emerging drug analogs, Rosenberg told Congress.

“I almost feel each time I sign an administrative control regulation that I’m simply telling the bad guys, ‘Not this one any more. Move over here.’ And that’s what they do,” Rosenberg said. “For every one substance we’ve controlled, legislatively or administratively, there are 11 more out there that are uncontrolled.”

Indianola Dad to Testify Before Senate Panel on Synthetic Drugs

Des Moines Register – June 6, 2016

WASHINGTON — The father of an Indianola teen who died six years ago after using a legal synthetic drug will tell Senate lawmakers Tuesday that people who manufacture and distribute the substances are moving faster than law enforcement and using “our own laws against us.”

In prepared remarks ahead of Tuesday’s hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Mike Rozga says the production of synthetic drugs is evolving rapidly, starting first with cannabinoids to most recently heroin, because they are “quicker, easier and, most importantly, cheaper” to produce and market than their traditional counterparts.

Rozga’s 18-year-old son, David, committed suicide in 2010 when he smoked the legal synthetic marijuana known as “K2.” Since then, Rozga has worked to increase awareness about the dangers of synthetic narcotics, which can cause severe hallucinations, seizures and violent behavior.

In the case of synthetic marijuana, the drug is typically composed of plant matter and sprayed with a chemical that mimics the active ingredient in marijuana. It is usually more potent.

“We are living in a time when bath salts are not put in your bathwater, K2 is not the second-highest mountain in the world, Purple Haze is not a Jimi Hendrix song, and Ivory Snow is not soap,” Rozga planned to testify. “We are not moving quickly enough and we are not giving law enforcement and prosecutors the tools they need.”

Sen. Chuck Grassley, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, introduced legislation named for Rozga’s son that placed some synthetic cannabinoids and their analogs on the schedule 1 list — meaning they have no accepted medical use and have a high risk for abuse. The bill, which strengthened penalties for traffickers, was enacted in 2012 and initially resulted in a drop in calls to poison centers.

But according to Grassley, calls for synthetic marijuana have started to rise again, increasing from 2,668 in 2013 to 7,779 in 2015. One challenge, he said, is that as soon as the government bans a new drug, manufacturers make a slight change so the new version is not illegal.

The Drug Enforcement Administration has estimated that substances identified from federal, state or local laboratories as synthetic marijuana have increased from 23 reports in 2009 to more than 37,000 in 2014.

“While this committee acted a few years ago, it’s clear the traffickers are continuing to outpace us,” Grassley is to say in his opening remarks Tuesday. “This is a difficult problem without easy answers. We need to take a hard look at whether law enforcement has the tools needed to protect the public from these synthetic drugs.”

According to the DEA, most synthetic drugs in the United States come from China through the mail or across the southern border with Mexico.