Hold on Senate bills ignores serious public health threat.
The fight against a frightening new scourge -- synthetic recreational drugs -- is a state and local issue. But the federal government shouldn't just stand by and do nothing, which is why Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul is wrong to singlehandedly hold up legislation to outlaw these drugs.
Paul -- whose libertarian views echo those of his father, presidential candidate Ron Paul -- has taken advantage of the Senate's byzantine procedural rules to stymie a batch of bills championed by Minnesota Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley and New York Democrat Charles Schumer.
The trio's timely legislation targets dangerous compounds often sold online as legal alternatives to illegal drugs. The mundane names commonly used for these compounds -- bath salts, spice, herbal incense or "research chemicals" -- unfortunately lend a false sense of safety to them.
Klobuchar's bill would outlaw the frightening compound 2C-E -- as well as eight other similar substances -- that was used at a Blaine house party last spring. Nineteen-year-old Trevor Robinson died after using 2C-E at the party, and other young partygoers required hospitalization. A young Maple Grove man's death also has been linked to using synthetic marijuana.
(A 2011 series of Star Tribune articles documented the compounds' risks and growing use in Minnesota and across the nation.)
The U.S. House has already taken aim at outlawing synthetic drugs, passing legislation in December. The Senate bills have also enjoyed broad bipartisan support, easily clearing key committees, only to have Paul block floor debate and a vote. Klobuchar, Grassley and Schumer took to the Senate floor this week to protest Paul's move.
According to a Feb. 16 Star Tribune story, Paul's office said the hold was necessary because the Kentucky senator believes "law enforcement of most drug laws can and should be state and local issues.''
Paul's hold on the bill raises broader questions about Senate procedure and the ability of one politician to temporarily bring the Senate to a halt. But the hold on the synthetic-drug legislation is especially troubling, even though Senate leadership can tap a more time-consuming process to circumvent it if necessary.
Many states, including Minnesota, have put restrictions on these compounds. But not all states have done so. That, plus the compounds' sale across state lines, means swift federal action is needed as well.
Had Paul spoken with local officials, he would have realized that they don't see the legislation as big-government meddling. Instead, they see it as yet another tool to stop this new scourge.
That's why Anoka County Attorney Tony Palumbo, whose jurisdiction includes Blaine, said Friday that he supports Klobuchar's bill. "We see the devastation at the local level.''
These compounds' skyrocketing use and potentially long-lingering effects also should have had Paul pushing these bills along instead of slowing them down. In 2010, poison-control centers received 3,200 inquiries about synthetic drugs. In 2011, centers fielded more than 13,000.
"We have to do everything within our capacity to address this issue,'' said Carol Falkowski, a respected researcher and drug abuse strategy officer at the Minnesota Department of Human Services. "It's that serious and that fast-growing.''