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Strengthening Partnerships to Combat the Threat of Synthetic Drugs

Richard Baum discusses the Administration's efforts at home and abroad to reduce the availability and use of synthetic drugs and protect Americans from this growing public health and safety threat.

Calls to Poison Control Centers relating to synthetic drugs, such as synthetic marijuana and bath salts, have increased dramatically over the past two years.  In the United States, Poison Control Centers report that calls relating to synthetic marijuana more than doubled last year, rising from 2,915 in 2010 to 6,890 in 2011.  Calls relating to bath salts skyrocketed from 303 in 2010 to 6,072 in 2011.  And the harms resulting from the ingestion of synthetic marijuana, sometimes marketed as K2, and bath salts, are real.  The effects of synthetic marijuana include agitation, extreme nervousness, nausea, vomiting, tachycardia (fast, racing heartbeat), elevated blood pressure, tremors and seizures, hallucinations, and dilated pupils.  Similar to the adverse effects of cocaine, LSD and methamphetamine, bath salt use is associated with increased heart rate and blood pressure, extreme paranoia, hallucinations, and violent behavior, which causes users to harm themselves or others.  Recognizing this emerging threat, the Obama Administration is taking decisive action to protect public health and safety.

The Drug Enforcement Administration used its emergency scheduling authority last year to ban eight substances related to synthetic marijuana and synthetic stimulants deemed harmful to public health and safety.  We are also working with Congress to pass legislation that would make this ban permanent, as states across the nation also take action. 

However, because the drug trade knows no national boundaries, we must also leverage the power of international cooperation to address the issue.  Not only does the consumption of these drugs affect citizens worldwide, but many of the substances used to make synthetic drugs sold in the United States are manufactured and distributed in other countries.  We must therefore, work closely with the international community to promote smart international controls on synthetic drugs. 

As part of this effort, the U.S. Government engaged with other nations to pass a resolution on synthetic drugs at last month’s meeting of the United Nations Commission on Narcotics Drugs in Vienna, Austria. The resolution promotes broader international cooperation and, more specifically, calls on the World Health Organization to review synthetic substances for possible international scheduling—the first step in tightening international controls on synthetic drugs.  Approval of the resolution by United Nations Members is a strong indication that many nations, not just the United States, want to see action to address the global synthetics trade.

The resolution also calls for:

  • Improved research, forensic analysis, and monitoring of internet sales of synthetics;
  • Countries to address the synthetics threat via emergency scheduling and the use of consumer protection, health, and hazardous substances legislation;
  • Enhanced criminal sanctions to prevent the illicit manufacture and trafficking of synthetics;
  • The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) to exchange information on synthetics with the International Narcotics Control Board, the International Criminal Police Organization, and the World Customs Organization;
  • Enhanced collection and sharing of information on these substances through existing and new mechanisms, including consideration of the creation of a UNODC “watch list” that could serve as an international early warning advisory system for new psychoactive substances.

The resolution is a significant step forward, and we look forward to continuing our work with partners at home and around the world to reduce the availability and use of synthetic drugs and protect Americans from this growing public health and safety threat.

Recent information from the Office of National Drug Control Policy on synthetic drugs can be found at:

Richard Baum is Branch Chief for International Policy in the Office of Supply Reduction