U.S. Sen. Rand Paul has put a roadblock in front of legislation aimed at combating synthetic drugs that are being increasingly abused by young people.
Paul's move has put him at odds with other lawmakers and narcotics officers, as well as with a woman from his home city who became an evangelist about the dangers of such drugs after her daughter suffered a bad reaction to synthetic marijuana.
When Ashley Stillwell, 19, bowed to peer pressure last August and smoked a substance called 7H, it quickly immobilized her, said her mother, Amy Stillwell of Bowling Green. Ashley's frightened friends poured water on her and shook her. When they couldn't rouse her, Ashley heard the others discuss dumping her body in the Barren River, her mother said.
The teen finally was able to return a call to her parents, and she recovered after they took her to the hospital, Amy Stillwell said.
Stillwell said it's frustrating that one senator is holding up proposals that would ban chemicals used to make synthetic drugs. The proposals have won support from other lawmakers. Three Senate measures on the issue cleared a committee last July, and the House voted 371-98 in December to approve a ban on synthetic-drug chemicals.
"Whatever happened to majority rule?" Stillwell said.
Paul's spokeswoman, Moira Bagley, confirmed he has put a hold on three Senate bills that would ban chemicals used to make synthetic drugs. The hold has been in place for at least three months.
Senate rules allow a single member to place a hold on a bill. That doesn't mean it can't be voted on, but it slows the process and raises some hurdles.
Senate leaders could try to override Paul's hold, but it would take 60 votes to bring up the measures for consideration over Paul's objection. With many other measures competing for time, the practical effect of a hold is to block a bill.
One key reason for Paul's hold is that he believes "enforcement of most drug laws can and should be local and state issues," Bagley said. Bagley also said the federal government has the authority to ban synthetic-drug chemicals without action from Congress.
Supporters of the legislation, however, have said banning the chemicals administratively would be much more time-consuming.
Bagley said another of Paul's concerns — which others have echoed — is that the proposed legislation could hinder efforts to do beneficial research on the chemicals. Bagley pointed out there is a mechanism for Senate leaders to try to quash the hold on the bills if support "is as bipartisan as Democrat leadership is touting."
Paul does not anticipate lifting his hold, Bagley said.
Sen. Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican sponsoring one of the bills, said it is not true that classifying chemicals used in synthetic drugs as controlled substances would bar research on them. Grassley and other senators urged Senate action on synthetic-drug bans in speeches this week.
"We cannot let the will of just one senator obstruct the will of many," Grassley said Wednesday.
Tommy Loving, executive director of the Kentucky Narcotic Officers' Association, said the group supports the proposed ban on chemicals used in synthetic drugs. He has urged Paul to let the measures come to a vote.
There are a variety of substances at issue in the debate, including leaves sprayed with chemicals to mimic marijuana. Others are sold as incense, bath salts, potpourri and other products, which police say create effects similar to methamphetamine, cocaine or LSD when ingested.
The products are sold over the Internet and at tobacco stores; "head shops" that also feature drug paraphernalia; convenience stores and other locations.
White House drug chief Gil Kerlikowske held a national conference call Thursday to emphasize the dangers of the drugs. The substances can cause problems such as elevated blood pressure, hallucinations and seizures, and some have been linked to violent behavior — including attacks on police — suicides and deaths, according to Kerlikowske and Deborah Carr, head of the American Association of Poison Control Centers.
Kerlikowske said abuse of synthetic drugs is spiking. In December, the National Institute on Drug Abuse said one in nine high-school seniors had used a substance called K2, or Spice, in the last year, making the synthetic marijuana the second most-abused drug among that group, he said.
Carr said calls to poison-control centers about synthetic drugs jumped from 3,200 in 2010 to 13,000 last year.
More than 35 states and many cities and counties, including some in Kentucky, have banned bath salts, synthetic marijuana and other substances, but the makers have changed the chemical structure in some cases to evade the law, and the substances remain widely available.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has banned the chemicals, but that is a temporary measure, Kerlikowske said.
Kerlikowske and others said federal legislation is needed to make a uniform standard and allow federal authorities to try to keep the drugs out of the country. Most are made in China or other countries.
"We are urging the Senate to pass that legislation," Kerlikowske said.