Is our long zombie cannibal bath salt apocalypse finally over? On Monday, President Obama signed a bill to ban several types of synthetic drugs, including synthetic marijuana and the now-infamous “bath salts” that have been implicated in a slew of grisly attacks in recent months. But there have been countless bans on these drugs over the past few years, and they’ve done little or nothing to halt the their spread — manufacturers routinely get around these laws by slightly altering the chemical formula to create a compound that may be only a few molecules different but delivers the same high. How will this new law be any different?
One of the biggest weaknesses of prior local bans has been their inability to stop online sale. As the drug becomes harder and harder to buy in local stores due to bans and bad press, more and more of the drug’s present users are buying it drug online. But the new ban is the first to be enacted on a federal level, meaning it covers the online and interstate sale of bath salts and other synthetics.
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But the new law’s unique force is that it prohibits not only the compounds currently identified as “bath salts,” but also outlaws similar compounds that may be produced in the future. In addition to the identified compounds, the law also prohibits other any synthetics that may have different chemical formulas but produce the same effects.
“This law will close loopholes that have allowed manufacturers to circumvent local and state bans and ensure that you cannot simply cross state lines to find these deadly bath salts,” Senator Charles Schumer, one of the bill’s sponsors, said in a press release.
Monday’s law bans the active ingredients of bath salts, mephedrone and methylenedioxypyrovalerone, by adding them to the Food and Drug Administration’s category of substances that cannot be sold under any circumstances and also cannot be prescribed for medical purposes.
The law enumerates 31 compounds that are explicitly banned, giving the precise, dizzying chemical name of each. (20 from the list are synthetic marijuana varieties, and 10 are bath salts.) The compounds listed, experts say, are some of the most popular varieties currently being used, so their immediate ban should slow synthetic drug use at least for the moment.
“Certainly there’ll be new compounds,” Gail Banach, director of public education and communications at the Upstate New York Poison Center, explained. “But if you build the higher wall, it makes it a little more difficult for the water to get over it.”
Because “the drug manufacturers are always one step ahead of the law,” in Banach’s words, the law was written to pre-emptively ban the new varieties that bath salt manufacturers will likely develop to get around the ban. The bill also prohibits “analogues” of the banned compounds—compounds that may differ slightly in their chemical makeup but produce very similar reactions in users.
When new compounds (which have most likely already been created by drug designers) hit the market, drug enforcement agents will be able to crack down on them under the same law, without the need for new legislation.
Opponents of the bill have objected that the penalties for possession of the synthetic drugs were too extreme. Sen. Rand Paul, who led the opposition to the bill, has expressed concern that issuing an extreme federal prohibition on another drug would put even more people in our already overcrowded prisons.
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Paul and other opponents have voiced concerns that strict prohibitions on the drug may block research on the drugs by making them too difficult to obtain, even for scientific purposes.
Others have argued that we aren’t yet fully aware of the drugs’ effects. For instance, the first and most famous attack reported as part of the “zombie bath salt” craze was revealed last week to be unrelated to the designer drug. A toxicology report on the perpetrator, Rudy Eugene, found that the attacker had no synthetic compounds (only marijuana) in his system.
But experts say there is no doubt that the drug is dangerous. Banach said that she has seen the number of emergency room visits for synthetic drugs increase tenfold recently, and receives countless calls from emergency room doctors about how to deal with synthetic drugs. The May highway attack notwithstanding, the drug has been linked to other attacks and is known to produce violent reactions.