WASHINGTON - Hoping to combat a growing market in synthetic drugs, the U.S. House voted Thursday to outlaw "bath salts" and other chemical compounds that simulate the effects of marijuana, cocaine and other illegal substances.
A Star Tribune investigation found that the drugs are often marketed as "legal" alternatives to underground narcotics but can have equally devastating consequences.
Synthetic drugs have been linked to at least two deaths in Minnesota this year and more than 20 fatalities nationwide. Federal authorities have yet to release any estimates on the number of deaths or injuries related to the products, which are also sold as "plant food" and "herbal incense."
In some cities, law enforcement agencies have been swamped with calls relating to the substances but have been unable stop the flow of the drugs, which remain widely available online and are still sold by some retailers. Altogether, 43 states including Minnesota have passed or have proposed laws banning specific chemicals found in synthetic drugs.
The House vote was 317-98. The Senate has yet to take up a similar bill, but Minnesota Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar has been pressing to pass federal legislation to outlaw at least nine chemicals used to make synthetic drugs.
Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pa., said he has been alarmed by "a sharp increase in the number of new reports detailing horrific stories of individuals high on synthetic drugs." Dent, who authored the House bill, cited a Pennsylvania case in which a man high on bath salts stabbed a priest. In another incident, someone jumped out of a three-story window after using them.
Minnesotans in the U.S. House voted overwhelmingly for the bill, with the exception of Democrat Keith Ellison, who was among 82 Democrats and 16 Republicans who voted against it. Ellison argued that the bill goes too far to extend the reach of federal drug law, which he said "would make more people subject to long prison terms even if they are low-level users."
Ellison, a Minneapolis lawyer, also claimed the bill circumvents the "normal procedure Congress established" for making substances illegal.
Other opponents said the bill went too far in restricting chemicals that could be used for medical research for diseases such as Parkinson's. Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann was campaigning in Iowa on Thursday and was not present to cast a vote.
The House vote follows action by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), which this year banned chemicals found in bath salts and synthetic marijuana products. Under the House bill, many of the chemicals found in synthetic drugs would be added to the federal "Schedule I" of controlled substances. It would also give the DEA broader powers to temporarily ban suspicious new drug compounds while their health effects are being investigated.
Local police agencies have called on Congress to make it easier for the DEA to quickly ban substances because it's so easy for drug manufacturers to switch chemicals. Currently, it can take years for the DEA to permanently ban a substance.
Test results of 30 synthetic drugs bought by the Star Tribune revealed wide variations in chemical makeup and potency, greatly increasing the chances of death from accidental overdose.
Through the end of October, synthetic drugs generated more than 11,000 calls to emergency rooms and other poison control centers nationwide, up from 3,218 calls last year.
Despite the growing alarm over synthetic drugs, legal questions remain about the constitutionality of laws designed to stay ahead of their growing popularity among young people.
Lawsuits challenging the new laws have been filed in Minnesota and several other states.
The Associated Press contributed to this report. Kevin Diaz is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau.