It's the "zombie apocalypse" that everyone is talking about—including Congress. The Miami cannibal attack may, if lawmakers have their way, be the final straw in the fight to making sure synthetic drugs such as bath salts and synthetic marijuana are classed alongside heroin and LSD.
"Looking at the Miami incident, we've seen people do some very bizarre acts on bath salts," says Florida Republican Rep. Sandy Adams, who helped push the Combating Dangerous Synthetic Stimulants Act of 2011 through the House last December. The bill would federally ban MDPV and mephedrone, two chemicals found in "bath salts," and dozens of other chemicals found in synthetic drugs.
Last week, the Senate passed a Food and Drug Administration bill that would ban many of the same chemicals. But so far, both houses haven't been able to pass an identical bill. The hang ups have been deciding exactly which chemicals to ban, and determining if there should be "mandatory minimum" sentences for synthetic drug traffickers.
Adams, who spent time working in the Orange County, Fla. Sheriff's office before going into politics, was imperative in getting Florida to ban synthetic drugs earlier this year. She says that hopefully the Miami incident will be the wake-up call Congress needs to get something done.
"I think that now we have to come together with the Senate and resolve whatever differences we have," she says. "We need to put a law in place that helps stop the sale and distribution of something this dangerous."
Maine Senator Susan Collins was a cosponsor of the Senate bill that recently passed. In a statement, she said Congress "cannot afford to wait to address this problem any longer."
"The longer Congress goes without enacting a permanent ban on these chemicals, the more our citizens are put at senseless risk," she says.
Many, but not all, states have taken recent measures to ban the drugs. While the Drug Enforcement Agency took emergency measures last year to make many synthetic drugs illegal, manufacturers can simply alter the chemical makeup to skirt the ban.
According to one bath salt manufacturer's website, certain products marketed as bath salts are banned in all states, others in 20 states, while some still enjoy complete legality, depending on the product's chemical makeup.
State bans can help local law enforcement prosecute synthetic drug dealers, manufacturers, and users, according to Adam Myrick, a spokesperson with the South Carolina Department of Health & Environmental Control, which played a part in banning synthetic drugs earlier this year.
"We echoed the action that had been taken by [the DEA]," Myrick says. "That state designation enables state and local law enforcement to make arrests that otherwise could only be done by federal agents."
A federal ban would also make transporting the drugs across state lines illegal. While Florida has a ban on many synthetic drugs, Adams says it used to be easy to drive to Alabama, where bath salts could, until recently, be purchased in convenience stores.
"If you do a federal ban, you won't be buying them online, if you live in Tallahassee, you won't be able to drive to Alabama or Georgia [and buy them]," she says.
Although the Miami incident served as a painful reminder of the dangers of bath salts and other synthetic drugs, Adams says it's certainly not the first time a psychotic episode has been attributed to the substances.
"These chemicals cause really severe reactions—a lot of them are violent…This is not an isolated incident, these are real things that are happening all the time." she says. "It's something we need to get focused on and get resolved."
Jason Koebler is a science and technology reporter for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow him on Twitter or reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org