Synthetic drug traffickers remain a step ahead of regulators

Members of the caucus and experts linked the drugs to thousands of calls to poison control, a growing number of emergency room visits and even some deaths.

The Department of Justice has prohibited various recipes since synthetic drugs started hitting U.S. streets about five years ago. But the agency is unable to keep up with the burgeoning and nimble industry, which is creating new formulas faster than Justice can ban them.

Currently, there are as many as 200 individual brands, said Joseph Rannazzisi, deputy assistant administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration's Office of Diversion Control.

“We just need to catch up,” he said. “We’re so far behind.”

Timothy Heaphy, U.S. attorney for the Western District of Virginia, said bringing criminal cases against the drug manufacturers is difficult, since many of the brands are marketed as other products and contain warnings that they are not meant for human consumption.

Once a substance is banned, the producers can simply alter the chemical makeup and release the new version under a different name, said Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), co-chairman of the caucus.

“A change of a molecule or two to a banned drug is sometimes enough to make a new and legal alternative,” he said.

Feinstein in July introduced legislation that ” would create a new inter-agency committee of scientists headed by the Drug Enforcement Administration. The panel would compile and maintain a list of all emerging synthetic drugs.

The “Protecting Our Youth from Dangerous Synthetic Drugs Act of 2013” would make it illegal to import synthetic drugs intended for human use. The substances are almost always shipped in from other countries.

It would also direct the U.S. Sentencing Commission to review and, if necessary, amend federal sentencing guidelines for violations involving synthetic drugs.