By Colby Itkowitz, Morning Call Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON — In response to a series of bizarre, sometimes deadly, incidents involving people high on "bath salts," Congress is poised to send a ban on chemicals used in synthetic drug mixtures to the president's desk.
U.S. Rep. Charlie Dent, R-15th District, a leading anti-bath salts crusader on Capitol Hill for more than a year, introduced a bill in March 2011 to add a long list of chemicals found in variations of designer drugs known as bath salts or synthetic marijuana to the Drug Enforcement Agency's list of controlled substances.
It passed the House overwhelmingly in December, but a version of a bath salts ban was blocked in the Senate by U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who argued that drug enforcement should be left up to the states. The Senate then included a bath salts ban in its version of legislation pertaining to Federal Drug Administration user fees.
Bipartisan support for Dent's bill in the House coupled with pressure from lawmakers, including U.S. Sen. Bob Casey Jr., D-Pa., in the Senate, convinced lawmakers to include the ban as part of a final compromise on the FDA package.
The House Wednesday passed the FDA-bill with language banning bath salts. Senate action is expected soon, sending the measure to White House for President Obama's signature.
"Stories of synthetic drug abusers harming themselves and those around them have become increasingly gruesome in recent weeks," Dent said. "Congress could no longer ignore the growing call from around the country to ban these dangerous substances."
The powdery white, cocaine-like substance, which could be purchased legally over the counter, can make users delusional, erratic and paranoid. Reported incidents of people high on bath salts-type drugs ranged from a Bethlehem man shooting a gun out his window because he believed people were watching him, to a Miami man chewing off another man's face on the side of the road.
Dent started working to get synthetic drugs off the streets after meeting with a constituent whose son had been getting high on synthetic marijuana.
In the Senate Casey also advocated abolishing bath salts and other synthetic drugs, and wrote the DEA a year ago urging the agency to take immediate action on banning the bath salt chemicals. In a statement he said the bipartisan, bicameral agreement to make the ban law was a "relief."
The federal ban would add more than two dozen synthetic chemicals to the DEA's Schedule 1 controlled substances list, classifying them with other illegal drugs like heroin, LSD and crack cocaine.
While many states, including Pennsylvania, had instituted their own bans on many of the chemicals, a federal ban would keep users from crossing state lines and buying the drugs legally, proponents of the ban say.