Synthetic Drug Sellers Can't Be Convicted Unless They're Aware of Breaking Laws

By McCarton Ackerman 06/22/15

The Supreme Court ruled on a case involving a man accused of selling bath salts.

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In a decision that could lead to plenty of grey area, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled this week that synthetic drug sellers can’t be convicted unless they were aware the substances were prohibited by law.

The ruling was made in the case of New York City native Stephen McFadden, who was convicted in 2013 of supplying bath salts to a store in Charlottesville, Va., therefore violating the Controlled Substances Analogue Enforcement Act.

A federal appeals court previously ruled that the jury’s belief that McFadden intended the bath salts for human consumption was sufficient. However, he argued the government needed to prove he was aware the bath salts were similar in effect to a controlled substance.

Although the Supreme Court sided with McFadden in this statement and overturned his conviction, the conviction could still be upheld. His case is now being sent back to the appeals court to determine whether the incorrect instruction that the jury received harmed his case.

McFadden’s lawyer said the controlled substances act he violated was design to target chemists who created the drugs and not low-level distributors who didn’t fully understand the dangers of them. However, prosecutors cited telephone recordings McFadden had with the store in Virginia, during which he compared the effects of bath salts to meth and cocaine. He also praised the “intense” and “powerful” feeling the drugs provided.

Prosecutors argued that McFadden’s interpretation of the law would make it nearly impossible to go after distributors, which would be a serious problem given the rise in synthetic drug abuse. Earlier this month, the Centers for Disease Control found that synthetic marijuana deaths have tripled in the last year alone. There has also been a 229% jump in the last 12 months for calls made to poison control centers related to synthetic cannabinoid use.

A separate report released last year by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA) also found that synthetic cannabinoid-related emergency department visits have skyrocketed, from 11,407 in 2010 to 28,531 in 2011, the most recent year for which data is available. In addition, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) received 17,000 synthetic cannabinoid-related reports, compared to just 469 back in 2010.

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.